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As our republic shakes apart from corruption, incompetence, cowardice, and naked lust for power, I keep thinking about Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, a Roman politician who lived through the fall of the Republic.  Although classicists rhapsodize about Sallust’s political (and stylistic foe) Cicero, I am no Classics Major. I studied history, so Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself though.  My favorite zinger from him is this jewel: “Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.”

At any rate Sallust was a populare…which is to say that, although he was born in an aristocratic family, he sought the support (and broadly advocated for the welfare) of the plebiscite.  As a youth, Sallust was a famous sybarite known for excesses of sensual depravity, but he became famously moral and censorious later in life.  This strikes me as humorous on many levels, but particularly because the high point of his political career was his term as governor of Africa Nova (what is today the coastal portion of Algeria and parts of Morocco and Tunisia).  To quote Wikipedia “As governor he committed such oppression and extortion that only Caesar’s influence enabled him to escape condemnation.”  Hahahaha…so much for all of that talk of ascetic virtue and the excesses of aristocracy.

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At any rate, what really interests me about Sallust is what he did with the stolen wealth of North Africa…which he used to build a timelessly famous garden in northeast Rome between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  The Horti Sallustiani “Gardens of Sallust” contained a temple to Venus, a vast portico, and an array of beautiful and famous sculptures–some of which have survived or been unearthed and are among the finest examples of Roman art.  Here is a little gallery of the most famous pieces.  As you can immediately see, they have had an enormous impact on western sculpture.

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“The Dying Gaul”(A Roman copy of the lost Greek original)

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“The Borghese Vase” excavated from the site of the gardens of Sallust in 1566. Napoleon bought it from his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in 1808

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The Ludovisi Throne, an enormous chair of contested origin which was discovered at the site of the Gardens of Sallust in 1887

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An aulos player on the wing of the Ludovisi Throne

The Gardens of Sallust passed to the author’s grand nephew and then became the property of the Roman emperors who kept them opened as a public amenity and added many features across a span of four centuries!  Even today, some of the original buildings and features are still extant.

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After four centuries, the gardens enter history one more time–or history entered them.  When the Goths sacked Rome it was still walled and heavily defended.  Alaric’s men laid siege to the eternal city three times.  The first two times, they were rebuffed by walls, defenders, and shrewd political guile, but the third time they gained access to the city through the Salarian Gate…which opened into the Horti Sallustiani.  Imagine the barbarians among the mausoleums, sarcophagi, and funereal urns outside the city, and then, by treachery or by Germanic ingenuity somehow, after 800 years they were within Rome itself among the pleasure pavilions and flowers and ornamental trees of the Gardens of Sallust.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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Jakarta (photo by Josh Haner for The New York Times)

Before I write about my trip home to visit my family (and LG the Canada goose), we need to pause for a moment to gawp in wonder at Indonesia’s decision to move their capital city.   Perhaps you are rolling your eyes in idiference and casting your mind back to Sung Dynasty/Mongol era when the Chinese capital (as variously construed by various factions)  could have been any of 28 locations, or you are remembering 18th century America when the capital meandered around the Mid-Atlantic to such an extreme extent that the national capital was some random bar in Trenton for a while [shudders].  Yet, this is not the era of Mongol conquest, nor the birth of a nation.  Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and Jakarta is absolutely enormous.  The city proper has a population of more than 10 million people and the full metropolitan area could arguably be the second most populous in the world with 34,365,000 souls packed into 3,300 square kilometers…although, frankly I found that list to be completely baffling and I can’t believe New York isn’t higher (also New York City’s GDP is greater than all of Indonesia’s…so maybe we can afford not to be too tetchy about rankings on some internet list).

Uh, anyway, according to president, Joko Widodo, Indonesia will move its capital city to Borneo over the course of the next decade, as set forth in this not-very-compelling illustration I just made.

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As you can see, Jakarta is in northern Java, so the move crosses about 1250 kilometers (800 miles) which includes the Java Sea.  Imagine if we decided to move Washington DC to Saint Louis, but St. Louis was on a huge island (St. Louis is not on an island, right? I don’t know much about it).

I have never been to Jakarta, but my mother grew up there and her house is filled with furniture and artworks from the great city.  When we visit my grandparents I hear all sorts of tales about Grandpa’s obstreperous mynah bird (that bird evidently had a naughty mouth), the giant cobra in the garden, and the beauty and chaos of 1960s Indonesia.

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Bogor in 1968 (photo by Roy Stall)

Jakarta needs to move because it is sinking fast.  Not only is the Java Sea rising (like all of the world’s oceans) but the city was built on top of a huge aquifer which was seriously depleted by the needs of 34 million people and all of their crops, showers, dishwashers, and whatnot.  The new location is more stable and already has some critical infrastructure in the oil-rich cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.  To quote Asia Today, “The capital will be built on 180,000 hectares of land already owned by the government, thereby minimizing the cost of land acquisition. Earthquakes, flooding and volcanic eruptions are less common in that area.”

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The current site of the proposed capital

The new capital is currently a rainforest, but the Indonesian government hope to minimize forest loss by keeping the city as dense as possible and by “building green.”  That sounds faintly hopeful, but if Indonesia’s real estate developers are anything like the ones here, it might not work out right in the real world.

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To be honest, I have no idea how to assess this proposal.  Obviously all of Jakarta won’t go to the new location.  It could be the Indonesian president is trying to juice the (moribund) project of building up the economy of Borneo (the majority of Indonesia’s economic output comes from Java).  But whatever the case, and whatever the ultimate outcome, this is not the last instance of this sort of move which we shall see.  The near future will feature massive disruption to seaside communities everywhere in the world (New York has been studying Holland and creating parks and building huge seawalls, but who knows if our plans will hold up?).  Best wishes to Indonesia in their quest.  Please spare the rainforest as much as possible, and let us all know what you learn.

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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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This is the elephant foot palm.  Despite the name, it is not a true palm (nor an elephant!) but is instead a member of the asparagus family.  The genus name is Beaucarnea and the most common of the 10 or so species is Beaucarnea recurvata, which is widely grown as an ornamental houseplant.

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Beaucarnea recurvata

This species is from Eastern Mexico (from the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí) where it grows in dry lowland forests.  It is capable of reaching a height of 5 meters (15 feet) but is usually much smaller and it grows slowly (although it is capable of living for centuries).   The most striking feature of the little tree is the swollen caudex at the base of the trunk, which is used for storing water in the trees arid home range.

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Beaucarnea gracilis in the Huntington Garden, Pasadena

This caudex, combined with the punk rock leaves/fronds gives the tree an irresistible Dr. Seuss-esque appearance which has made the plants popular in the nursery trade (if you get one, be sure to keep it warm and don’t overwater it).  Alas, its popularity has been detrimental to the wild trees which have been overharvested for sale to nurseries and ornamental gardens.  However with the world’s climate warming up as fast as it is, maybe they will take over Texas or California or France or something.  Who knows anymore?

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Beaucarnea recurvata in Parrot Jungle, Miami

The end of spring and beginning of summer is one of the most magical times in the garden: April’s overture of bulbs and exquisite flowering trees has faded back, but now we get to the real melody of the flower garden–the timeless flowers of transcendent beauty like irises, lilies, roses, and…lilacs.

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Flower aficionados may now be raising their eyebrows. The flowers of lilacs are pretty enough in a nondescript way: they look like fuzzy lavender dumplings on deep green broad-leafed trees, but they are not like lilies and roses, the peerless queens of opulent beauty.  Why am I mentioning them here?  The answer is obvious to people who love gardens, but it is a difficult answer to show on a blog.  Honeysuckles, jasmine, gardenias, and roses are all famous for their scent, but, to my nose, nothing smells as paradisiacal as lilacs. Their smell of spicy honey is a sensory experience all to itself.  I can’t even think of how to properly describe it except as lilac-smelling.  If you can’t summon it to our mind, you should sprint out into the dusk and run through temperate Europe and North America until you smell their heady perfume.

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The lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a species of flowering plant from the the olive family.  The common lilac is a small tree native to the Balkan Peninsula, where it grows naturally upon rocky hills.  Lilac trees are small and measure at most 6–7 meters (20–23 ft) in height.  They can reproduce from an olive-like brown capsule which splits open into two helicopter seeds or by suckering (over time, lilacs form small clonal colonies).

Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization, yet there are no myths that I can think of about lilacs.  Medieval letters are likewise silent about lilacs and the fragrant flowers aren’t even mentioned at all by Shakespeare.  Lilacs came late to the garden, which, combined with their average looks, is perhaps why we rhapsodize about them less than we should (it is worth noting that there is a beautiful sort of Korean lilac, which, when blooming, looks like a purple dream, but it is not renowned for its scent–it seems that only the rose is capable of having it all).

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Korean Dwarf Lilac

The garden lilacs we have seem to descend from Ottoman specimens. Apparently Turkish gardeners managed to ferret out treasures which the ancients missed.  These were hybridized and domesticated during the 14th and 15th centuries and cuttings reached the most fashionable and innovative gardens of Western Europe in the late 16th century through the Holy Roman Empire (so Shakespeare could have smelled lilacs, if only he had known the most botanically-connected and florally-innovative aristocrats).

Whatever their provenance, lilacs smell wonderful, and I feel like they should be more fashionable (indeed they have been at the center of garden fame at various points in 18th and 19th centuries).  For the sake of Ferrebeekeeper themes it is worth noting that “lilac” is also the name of a muted shade of pale purple.  To wrap up the post here is a lilac ottoman.  Since I could never find images of the great Ottoman lilac gardens of medieval Istanbul, this purple padded stool will have to do.

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The Sole Seed and the Space Ark (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

A month or so ago, I wrote a heartfelt post about humankind’s relationship with other living things and why I feel that our ultimate destiny lies beyond the Earth.  I am still thinking about how to say that message with all of the grace and power I can muster.  Everyone paying attention to current trends fears for the future of living things.  As humankind’s appetites grow exponentially we are bringing terrifying changes.  Yet humankind’s knowledge and abilities are growing too.   I hope you will read the post…or at least its Biblical-themed follow-up concerning the art of Noah’s ark.  in the meantime, I made a sculpture shaped like a flatfish to try to explain my conception in the non-linear language of symbols (coincidentally, flatfish are my symbol for Earth life with its hunger and deep beautiful sadness and with a known tendency to desperately snap at baited hooks).  There is the tree of life sprouting anew out of a battered ark and spreading seeds upon the cosmic wind (or are those pink stars?).  Above the ark is a mysterious figure which may be a symbol of our “life instinct” and our need to disseminate ourselves (or it may be a shrugging cartoonish new human–who can say?).  Interred in the crypt beneath the universe is the inverse reflection of the life instinct: our Thanatos death instinct (for we take it with us always, no matter where we go).  It is pictured as a strange human/lamprey mummy-thing writhing its gray fluke in its cramped chamber.

The cosmic fluke has a perplexed expression.  Perhaps it is less sure than I about the wisdom of venturing out into the unknown.  Or maybe it is just hungry…like all living things.

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One of life’s lesser disappointments is how boring everything here in America looks.  I am not sure if this is a result of banal & puritanical tastes of home buyers or if the regulatory capture which is such an aspect of life here has allowed developers and zoning boards to prevent everything but prefab ranches and ugly co-ops.  Probably it is a result of a combination of these things (along with a real desire by builders to keep people safe and an equal desire to make things that appeal to everyone). Anyway I am looking forward to a future of wilder and more eclectic buildings and we can already see inklings of such possibilities by looking abroad.

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For example this is “Quetzalcoatl’s Nest” a complex of ten different apartments built by renowned Mexican architect Javier Senosiain in Naucalpan, Mexico.  Senosiain is an advocate of organic architecture, which takes its inspiration from a combination of preexisting landscape features and natural forms.  Quetzalcoatl’s Nest is built in a hilly landscape of natural caverns, serpentine ridges and old oak groves.   looking at this landscape, Senosiain saw the shape of a colossal mythological serpent.  He incorporated a large cave into the building as the snake’s head and then set out to build other textures of snake ribs and scales and serpentine patterns into the compound.

 

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The fantastical lair includes water gardens, strange modern hideaways, and fantastic stained glass show spaces in a hard-to-describe architectural tour-de-force which spreads over 16,500 square feet.   I have included a selection of pictures here, but you should really find a video somewhere so you can get a better sense of what is going on.  Why couldn’t the Barclay’s Center people hire this guy so that their rattlesnake could look awesome instead of sinister and corporate.

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Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

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