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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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We are coming up to Halloween time and Ferrebeekeeper always features a special theme week to celebrate the spooky season.  Start getting ready for next week’s dark excitement!  For today though I want to present a half-spooky, half-beautiful Gothic post (since it has been too long since we visited that category).

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One of my favorite things are fountains—the aesthetic (and, usually, the actual) focal point of gardens and town squares.  Fountains represent vitality, comfort, and healing—they are the place where people go to quench their spiritual thirst (and, you know, get water).

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The most famous fountains tend to be in Baroque, modern, and Greco-Roman styles, but there are also many lovely Gothic fountains throughout Europe.  Some of these are almost wholly religious in character, but others are spidery and ornate or feature dragons, monster, and gargoyles.

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Here is a little gallery of random Gothic fountains.  Most of them are real, but it seems like a couple may have been built by computer programmers to enliven online worlds of magic and fantasy.  They are all exciting and interesting and they provide an early taste of Halloween fun (and hopefully quench your need for Gothic hydration).

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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One of the great classical forms of Chinese porcelain is the Lonquan ewer. These green-glazed wine vessels are named for the the Longquan kiln complex in (what is now the) Zhejiang province of South China. The ewers originated in the Song dynasty and the form was characteristic up until the Ming dynasty—but perhaps the heyday of Lonquan ware was during the Yuan dynasty when Mongols ruled China. I suspect most (or all) of these examples are from the Yuan dynasty. Look at the beautiful pear form of the vessels and the sinuous grace of the handles.

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I enjoy putting up pictures of amazing historical crowns glittering in heavily guarded vaults in countries which are now democracies, yet the crowns which have disappeared are often more interesting even to the point of being allegorical. An example of this is the crown of George XII of Georgia. His highly traditional arched crown of red velvet, gold, and jewels looked like the crown from a high school play or on a corporate logo. It was manufactured by were promptly manufactured by the artist Pierre Etienne Theremin and the goldsmith Nathanael Gottlob Licht in St. Petersburg. The crown was made in 1798 and, when George XII died in 1800 the crown (and Georgia) were duly annexed by Paul I and Alexander I. The crown was kept in the Kremlin until the communist revolution. After the communists took full control of the country, the crown was returned to Georgia in 1923. Unfortunately, it was an age of exigency, and the communist leaders of Georgia decided to “use” the crown in 1930 (whereupon it disappears entirely from history). The two equally likely fates of the crown are both interesting in a choose-your-own adventure sort of approach to political hegemony. In one scenario, the crown was broken up by the Georgian communists and the constituent gold and jewels were sold (or purloined). In an equally plausible fate for the crown, it was sold to super-rich oil titan Henri Deterding, the erstwhile head of Royal Dutch Shell. If this latter case is true, the crown could still be in the private collection of some super-rich collector, who has no need to advertise the fact he has the crown (or possibly doesn’t even know what it is). I wonder which of these possible fates befell the crown…or did something altogether different happen? Anyway, if you happen to have it in a box in your attic, you should call somebody, it may be worth something and I bet the Georgians would love to have it back.

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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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We have “dark” (Yummmm!!) we have “milk” (yumm!) and we have the cloying travesty that is “white”(ummm…I guess this is for people who like the idea of chocolate but who don’t like the delicious flavor, the robust color, or the pleasant texture)… and thus has it been for many lives of men. But now, a marketing company has crafted a whole new hue/variety of chocolate “ruby” which is a sort of sad etiolated reddish color. An honest colorist would probably call it “sickly pink”.
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Allegedly, ruby chocolate is made from a whole new cultivar of cacao plant. These ruby beans have been grown secretly in Ecuador, Brazil, and Cote D’Ivoire by mad German scientists in silent service to Callebaut (the chocolate maker which I have also never heard of until their effort garnered a bunch of attention from the media). All chocolate lovers are going to have to try this overpriced weird looking stuff (just in case) but it is highly probable we will quickly discover that it is a worthless marketing stunt (like most things in our oversaturated oversold era). Here is a very funny article from the NYTimes which skewers the inane language of this novelty chocolatier.
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This is all good fun, but it brings up a bigger question about why humankind is so profoundly susceptible to novelty. We know what is good and what works well, but we will happily trade it all for a quick-tongued peddler’s dodgy-looking magic beans (literally, in this ruby bean chocolate case…but figuratively in art, politics, culture and all sorts of other venues). I guess this is ok and is all part of humankind’s desperate tragic fire-wielding ascendancy: you don’t go from pathetic leopard-fodder hominid to planet girdling superorganism in a mere 100,000 years without trying a lot of new coke and diving dolphins. Yet I can also see why venerable people start to roll their eyes at the pop-stars, computer apps, and cronuts which culture lavishly fawns upon and then instantly forgets. There are a lot of pinkish beans and not may rubies…
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[The role of the greedy simpleton will be played by, um, everyone]

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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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I wanted to quickly write about a great piece of art from the 19th century (or really two great pieces). When Honoré de Balzac died, the city fathers (or the Second Empire…or someone) commissioned a great bronze statue of the (in)famous realist. Balzac was renowned for his larger-than-life personality and for his exuberant personal life. The commissioners of the sculpture found an equally over-the-top realist sculptor to make the statue, Auguste Rodin. Rodin tracked down every daguerreotype and drawing of Balzac. He interviewed Balzac’s mistresses and intimates and went to Balzac’s tailor for exact measurements. He took casts from Balzac’s death mask and did everything but exhume his corpse (presuming he didn’t do that in secret). Then Rodin made a brash sculpture of the great novelist standing nude, with his legs apart and his arms crossed, brooding upon the human comedy.
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The patrons who commissioned the sculpture were predictably aghast (although I like to think Balzac would have been amused–and flatterd by his muscular torso). They demanded that Rodin redo the whole thing–this time properly clothed. Rodin went into a huge huff and he threw a great cowled cloak over the statue (which only showed a tiny portion of Balzac’s brooding countenance). That was that: it was thereafter impossible to get him to work further upon the project. Nobody was satisfied…but the publicity from the controversy made all parties more famous and rebounds down to this day.
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Astonishingly, and somewhat improbably, we are having a great national debate in the United States over nineteenth (and early twentieth) century sculptures (I will write more about that shortly). Eventually, inevitably, the turgid bronzes of rebels, slavers, and secessionists will be taken down or moved (like “The Triumph of Civic Virtue”). However right now they are in limbo. The most controversial of all, the statue of Lee in Charlottesville has had a great tarp cast over it (which improves it no end, to my mind). Seeing gawkers pointing at the plastic cocoon upon a plinth brought a smile to my face and reminded me of Balzac’s statue and all of the trouble that public art causes.

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