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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 The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the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.

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Every year for Saint Patrick’s Day, I have put up a post about Celtic mythology/folklore.  In the past these have been about magical beings like leprechauns, the Leannán Sídhe, or the horrifying Sluagh. Sometimes these posts have been complete stories like the tale of Oisín and the princess from Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young (shudder).  These myths are metaphors for the beauty and sadness of life.  they focus on the impossible paradoxes of people’s hearts.  Yet lately my personal focus has been on fish-themed art which is symbolic of humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with nature itself–our never-ending drive to consume the world of life that we are inextricably part of.  What if there were a tale that combined these elements?

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Well…in the most ancient Irish myths there was a figure known as the bradán feasa, “the salmon of knowledge.”  The salmon was an ordinary salmon who ate nine hazelnuts which fell from the tree of knowledge and tumbled into the mortal world.  The fish knew all of the wisdom of nature: it knew the reason the sun shines, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the secrets of the green forest…it even knew the hidden truths of people’s hearts and why they do what they do. 

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For years and years the great sage Finegas fished the River Boyne trying to catch the salmon so he could devour it and gain its knowledge of all things.  The salmon (obviously) already knew what Finegas was up to, and it was no easy prey, but alas, it also knew the end of the myth and so, one day, it reluctantly succumbed to Finegas’ hook.  Finegas was exultant.  Soon he would know all of the hidden secrets of the world. He gave the fish to his apprentice, Fionn, to cook along with explicit instructions not to eat a single bite of the fish. Dutifully Fionn built a great blaze and set about cooking the enormous fish, but as he repositioned the bronze cooking vessel, he burnt his thumb and he unthinkingly popped his finger into his mouth.  

Fish Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink and colored pencil

Fish Cook (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Ink and Colored Pencil

All of the salmon’s knowledge from the divine tree of knowledge flowed through one drop of fish fat into the mind of Fionn.  Awakening from his slumber to partake of his repast, Finegas looked into the eyes of his servant and he knew at once that the divine secrets of the universe were for the next generation not for the aged sage.  That servant boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, would become the greatest hero of Ireland, the eponymous figure at the center of the Fenian cycle.  His deeds and his loves were legend and his myth will never die.  Indeed, Fionn himself will never die: he sleeps…elsewhere… beyond the turnings of the world.  One day, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need he will reawaken and bring back the salmon’s knowledge to the dying world. But that is another story…   

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Here is an illuminated page from the Da Costa Book of Hours which was illustrated by Flemish master Simon Bening around 1515 AD.  Bening was regarded as the last great Flemish illuminator. His illustrations (somewhat like “The Shepheardes Calender“) chart the months of the year through sensitive landscapes filled with hard-working farmers and gardeners.   It is a remarkable and rare work in the canon or art in that the workers look like they are actually working, but are neither bumpkinish figures of fun nor beautiful superhumans (although they are brilliantly attired in expensive new garb).  The book was made for the Sá family of Portugal (it is a Sephardic surname).  This is the illustration for the month of March when winter has not yet left the land, yet the first green shoots are appearing.  The gardeners are hard at work laying in the new garden and repairing the trellised avenue as a fur clad nobleman explains what he wants. Note the courtly nobles holding hands on the bridge and the stork nesting on the chimney of the handsome little gothic chateau.

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It is not a secret that my least favorite month is February.  Winter keeps holding on with grim ferocity while the joys of spring are, at best, far away.  Every year when the end of winter comes around I keep looking out at the garden waiting for the first green shoots to appear.  But the garden is still a sea of gray rubble and dead stalks (plus I failed to plant windflowers or snowdrops and the crocuses and hellebores have yet to flower).

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So this year, instead of going all the way outside (where it sounds like there is a windstorm), I went to the internet to find some early blooming flowers and I came across the witch hazels (the family Hamamelidaceae).  I have encountered them before–in liquid form as an astringent aftershave, however the living plants turn out to be very lovely in a small wilderness meadow sort of way. There are four North American species of witch hazels and two Asian species (one from China and one from Japan).  They are small deciduous shrubs/trees with large oval leaves. The American species are also known as winterbloom (which should have served as a hint that they bloomed in the cold season). The picture at the top of the post is the Chinese witch hazel ((H. mollis) currently blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic garden.

Witch hazels have red and yellow flowers with droopy corkscrew petals.  From a distance these have a winsome loveliness, but up close they are pretty crazy–like a Murano glassblower got the hiccups or an abstract expressionist sent you a bouquet. Here is a little gallery of witch hazels which I lovingly stole from around the web.

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Branding is a powerful force, and I have always assumed that these plants were used in ancient magics by various priestesses, enchantresses, sorceresses, and other suchlike lady thaumaturges.  Imagine my distress to learn that the witch hazels are in no way affiliated with witches or any other sort of dark magic.  Apparently this version of the word “witch” comes down to us from the Old English word “wice”, which means pliant or, uh,  bendy and is unrelated to the magical sort of witch.  Thanks a lot, English, what other misleading homonyms do you have lying around the garden beds.   Anyway enjoy the witch hazels and pretty soon we will go out and look at some proper spring flowers (if and when the wind calms down).

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(that witch better have an OED somewhere)

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