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Imagine a flood of pure inky darkness spreading inexorably across the land and destroying all living things in Stygian gloom.  Well…actually you don’t have to imagine it.  Such a phenomena exists! When rain falls immediately after forest fires, the baked earth can not absorb any water and all of the ash, char, and soot become a gelatinous flash flood.  I have never mastered the WordPress tool for videos, but you can see such a flood by following this link.  I was fascinated by the horrible, otherworldly sight and I watched the clip again and again, but, be warned, it is as troubling and awful as it sounds (perhaps more so, since such events spell toxic doom for any aquatic or amphibious animals living in arroyos, riverbeds, and floodways so afflicted).

So why am I posting this unwholesome sight during this already dark plague year?  It is a warning, obviously.  After one thing goes horribly awry, it is all too easy to start a chain reaction of bad things which ruin the land itself.  Lately (since 2016) things have been going wrong in all sorts of directions.  We need to prepare for attendant woes and gird ourselves against them.  We also need to guard our forests against fire (and axes, invasive pests, and industrial mayhem).

 

 

As you can imagine, this year, my garden has been a particular source of solace and inspiration!  Alas, spring’s explosion of flowers is already fading away for another year.  As always, I tried desperately to hold onto the beauty through the magic of art, but (also as always) the ineffable beauty slipped away as I tried to capture it with paint. In fairness, the true thrust of my artwork lately concerns the crisis of life in the modern oceans (which is a rather different subject than pretty pleasure gardens).

A few weeks ago I posted the watercolor paintings which I made of the garden’s cherry blossom phase.  Here are some little sketches I made during the tulip florescence which followed.

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Leen Van Der Mark Tulips in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

These tulips are called Leen Van der Mark, and they are my favorite (since they look even more Dutch than they sound).  Initially there were even more tulips than this, but the squirrels beheaded quite a lot of them.  The strange metal mushroom is some sort of industrial vent/fan thing. Probably best not to think about it too much.

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The Broken Pot with Crabapple Blossoms (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is a melancholic picture of the non-flower part of the garden.  The neighbor’s cypress wall fell down in a spring gale revealing the wire, garbage, and urban chaos on the other side. I tried to capture the madness (along with the poignant broken pot and withered elephant ear), but I feel like I only managed to draw a blue halo around the fake plastic urn.

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Bleeding Heart Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

There are some small casts of classical sculptures in my garden.  This little sphinx always topples over unless it is secured to a brick or a paver.  The strange taupe “hands” are meant to be hellebore flowers–which are actually that color but which possess a winsome troubling beauty wholly absent here (although I guess they are a bit troubling). Once again we can see bits of the detritus in the neighbor’s exposed yard.

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Rhododendron in Spring Flower Bed (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is the opposite side of the garden,with some summer impatiens popping up.  I have forgotten what these orange and yellow tulips are called, but they remind me forcefully of my childhood (when I gave one to my schoolbus driver in kindergarten). The extreme right of the composition features a very beautiful and robust fern (although we can only see one of the surviving fronds from winter). In front of the frond is a species tulip, Tulipa clusiana, which is native to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the western Himalayas.  Those places are usually much scarier than Brooklyn, so perhaps it will naturalize and take over.

Thanks for looking at these pictures.  I am a flounderist rather than a garden painter, but it was good to have a pretext to just sit in the sunny garden and stare at the flowers for hours.  I will see if I can take the watercolor set out to the stoop and do a street scene as summer gets closer.  The police have been scuffling with quarantine scofflaws out front, so that painting might actually be an exciting picture (if I can watercolor fast enough to paint a near-riot).  Speaking of which, stay safe out there and best wishes for continuing health and some floral joy of your own.

 

H-140-42 Hura crepitans

Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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Cherry Tree at Dusk (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020), watercolor and colored pencil on paper

There is a large & venerable Kwanzan Cherry Tree in my backyard in Brooklyn.  Each year it blooms for a week (or less) and during that time the garden becomes transcendent in its sublime pink beauty.  Nothing symbolizes the sacred renewal of spring more than the cherry blossoms (which I have blogged about often in the past).

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Rennie Burning the Broken Fence (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

Year after year the blossoms come and go so quickly, and, stumbling along behind, I try to capture their evanescent glory with my art.  Yet I am never satisfied.  This strange pandemic year, I had a bit more time in the garden to draw (after all there were no blossom parties to prepare for) and…for a moment I thought that perhaps I got a bit closer to capturing a smidgen of the tree’s beauty.  Yet, now that I have photographed the drawings and watercolor paintings, suddenly they seem alien from the tree’s living glory.

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Cherry Blossoms and Holly at Night (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor

So it goes with human endeavor, I suppose.  At any rate, here are the drawings.  There is a fierce wind howling outside right now (and near freezing temps) so I have a feeling that this is the blossom art portfolio for this year (although maybe I will try some more tulip paintings before those go too).  It all goes so fast.  it is all so beautiful.

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Cherry Blossoms and Tulips (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

Anyway, here are my cherry blossom paintings this year.  Take care of yourself and be safe.  There will be another spring next year when we can have the full party with all of the trappings!

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Cherry Blossoms on Easter (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor and Colored Pencil on Paper

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Here is an illuminated page of the Grimani Breviary (which is named after a Venetian cardinal who purchased it in 1520 for 500 gold ducates).  The breviary takes the form of a calendar and here is the page for April, which features a party of nobles out in the spring countryside falconing.  The work is filled with infinitesimal details, but my favorite parts are the capering jester (who has somehow become entangled with a tree as he brandishes his grotesque marotte) and the opulent yet ethereal carriage of Time which, unseen, flies above the procession.  The work was completed sometime around 1510 in Flanders.  Note also the Crakow shoes worn by the foppish noble in shimmering green and scarlet at the right.

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Wildlife Quilt (Patricia Ferrebee, 2019), mixed cotton textiles

By accident, this week ended up being parti-color snake week.  I am very much ok with this outcome–especially since the brilliant reptiles brighten up a dull and depressing part of the year while at the same time they are still safely in brumation and we don’t have to worry about accidentally stepping on them (at least here in Brooklyn). Anyway, to wrap up the week, I thought I would show you this exceedingly lovely quilt which my mother made for me.  It is a wildlife quilt which features penguins, lions, bears, prairie dogs, orangutans, ostriches, llamas, and so many snakes.  The creatures are pieced together out of little carefully cut pieces of cloth which are lovingly embroidered onto the larger quilt.

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Alas, my photography skills are indifferent and I cannot show you the gorgeous glistening colors of the quilt.  Because my parents have a quilt/knitting store (which you should visit if you are in Parkersburg, West Virginia), mom has a huge variety of magnificent new cotton print fabrics. I like the way all  of the animals came out, but I am especially fond of the snakes which truly capture the brilliantly colored scales.

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Something that always strikes me at the zoo is how a brightly colored snake (which is a shape humans instinctively recognize and react to!) lying on a bed of completely differently colored twigs and leaves is difficult to see.  This quilt conveys something of that real-world effect (although my photographs do not capture the subtle scintillating colors of the fabrics and thus do not fully duplicate the verisimilitude).

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It is lovely to lie on this quilt and read.  It is like being on the veld or in the northwoods…yet without harsh temperature extremes or biting insects (or, you know, lions).

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Mom’s quilts become more beguiling by the year (I will have to show you some of her nighttime garden quilts someday), but this animal quilt is a particular winner because it has animals!  I think we can all agree that, one way or another, animals are pretty much the best aspect of life (even if not everyone is quite as fond of snakes and fish as I am). Look at the decorative stitching on that little snake in the early autumn forest!

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These amazing quilted reptiles (including this purse lizard from an earlier post) are a reminder that imagination, artistry, and craft can endow our lives with some of the beauty and meaning of the natural world if we work at it.  This is an important theme, which we need to return to, because it seems like the way we live and work in the industrialized automated world is not working as well for everyone as philosophers, economists, and social theorists of the late twentieth century envisioned.  The beauty of the snakes are also a reminder that I need to collaborate with my mother to make another animal quilt at some point–perhaps the Australian outback or the deep sea!

Thanks again mom, for this magical blanket (which is as warm and functional as it is lovely). Right now though I had better go throw a lesser blanket over it. There are some real (domestic) animals clambering up onto my wild animal quilt and although I love them with all of my heart but I don’t trust them for a moment with my cherished quilt.

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It is the Yuletide and Ferrebeekeeper is relaxing away from the infernal computer…but it wouldn’t be right to leave the site unattended without a Christmas post, so here is a picture of me cooking an organic chicken so that my friend will come over and eat Mei Fun on Christmas (it turns out that the chicken was merely a free-range, vegetarian chicken which was untreated with steroids and antibiotics (which I don’t think they even give to chickens anyway), so we’ll see if she even participates in this holiday feast).  However, of greater interest than this gory (albeit festive) kitchen scene, below please find a picture of my sacred tree of life.  Not only is it hung with all manner of different animals from throughout the history of life, there is a very special midwinter animal contemplating its effulgent splendor!

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

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American Forest Before the Chestnut Blight

Once upon a time, American deciduous forests were filled with a magnificent tree, the American chestnut tree.  It is estimated that, prior to the twentieth century, a quarter of the trees in the forests of Appalachia were chestnut trees.  The trees grew to 30 metres (98 ft) in height and were prized for giving stout timber and large quantities of delicious nuts.  They were also renowned for their beauty.  But then, something bad happened.  In 1904, some Asian chestnut trees were planted in the Bronx (in what is now the Bronx zoo).  These Chinese chestnut trees had a pathogenic fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, living on them.  Chestnut tree species of Asia have evolved some defenses to this rapidly spreading fungus, but the two American species were completely unprepared.  By 1950, the blight had killed more than four billion trees and only strange isolated single specimens and sad still-living (yet undead) stumps remained.  The chestnut blight opened our eyes to the perils of invasive species in a world of almost-instant shipping (although I don’t think we have yet fully understand how pervasive and potentially dangerous fungi can be), it also marked an irreversible change to our beautiful forests…

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Evidence of the Chestnut Blight!

Except maybe not.  Molecular biologists, mycologists, and arborists have been quietly working for years to hybridize a blight-resistant modern American chestnut tree.  They failed at hybridizing a vigorous tree with the desired characteristics of the original American chestnut trees, so they turned to transgenic tinkering and this technology has yielded results.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry has utilized the same sort of technology behind genetically modified crops (like BT rapeseed and such) in order to create American chestnut trees which have a gene from wheat that helps the trees survive and tolerate Cryphonectria parasitica.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is readying an army of these genetically altered trees to go into the wild forests and reseed North America as it used to be, but their plan is not without controversy.

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Some opponents worry (understandably) that bringing back the chestnut will represent “a massive and irreversible experiment” on our living forests.  Additionally, as we know from the hysterical response to transgenic crops in Europe and even here, many people are extremely emotional and ill-informed about gene-manipulation technologies (probably because the phrase “gene-manipulation technologies” sounds so much like a 1950s horror movie tagline).   Transgenic blight-resistant American chestnut trees still need regulatory review from the Food and Drug Administration (and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency) before they can be planted and allowed to disperse pollen.  Such a process may take many years.  Yet tree lovers and concerned ecologists point out that the near-extinction level mass deaths of American chestnuts was caused by humankind’s actions and choices.  And more blights are arriving every year to destroy other cherished species of trees.  We live in a world of emerald ash borers, Dutch Elm Disease, spotted lantern flies, gypsy tent moths, and oak wilt.  If we don’t start doing something, the only tree left might be the diabolical invasive tree of heaven (I can’t believe nobody commented on that post! Am I the only person to despise that nightmarish monster?).

The regulators are starting to analyze the proper course of action, and I guess we will be hearing more from them, but, in the meantime, what do you think?

 

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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 Latin grammar expert. I studied history!  So Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Although not famed for his annoying aphorisms, Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself.  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 infamously 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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