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Let’s talk briefly about this crazy Chinese prom dress fiasco.  What happened is that a (wasp-y) Utah high school senior found an elegant red silk cheongsam, also known as a qipao in a thrift store.  The form-fitting curves of the high-necked Chinese dress suited her and she put some pictures of herself on social media—only to be derided by a priggish young man of Chinese American heritage who wrote:

My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress…I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the shameful treatment of early (or contemporary!) East Asian immigrants, the excesses of American consumerism, all sorts of colonial ideologies…these are all subject to meaningful and broad-ranging ethical criticism. However, a brief look at the history of the cheongsam quickly illustrates the problems of “cultural appropriation” politics.

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The cheongsam was originally a baggy robe-type dress worn by women of the Manchu.  The Manchu were northern horselords who made up a mighty branch of the Tungusic peoples.  During the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty (as ignorant, incompetent emperors and their crooked enablers drove the empire to ruin, famine, and civil war), the Manchus poured out of the north and conquered all of China.  Han people wore the cheongsam to ingratiate themselves with their red-tasseled Manchu overlords…but over time the dress became much less conservative and began to hug the form.  In the 1920s, with influence from Western flapper fashions, it evolved into a stylish and often tight-fitting dress (with high leg slits) for socialites and upper-class women…and for demi-mondaines, before it entered the broader culture of East Asia and South East Asia. Should we decry the colonialism of Manchu war lords? Do we need to call out the puritanical sexism of the original dress which was meant to cover women up…or the sexism of the later dress which was meant to show off women’s bodies?  Ultimately the Han appropriated the dress from their Manchu conquerors (and then conquered Manchuria which is now the northern part of the people’s Republic of China).  Should this Utah teenager have taken all of this in to consideration and worn a high-waisted Empire gown (oh wait that reflects the excesses of the Napoleonic era and should only be worn by French people) or a satin tunic gown (shades of ancient Greece) or an elegant pleated fancy dress with mameluke sleeves (nooooo! Orientalism!)?

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Every style of outfit has wound down from ancient antecedents which have mixed together over the millennia.  Culture is not a tiny stagnant tarn—it is like the water cycle of Earth. Great rivers mingle and wind down to the common oceans only to be swept by the clouds back to the uplands and return again and again.

It should be obvious now that I really dislike the entire concept of “cultural appropriation” as a smear directed at people who admire or utilize elements of many different culture (this makes sense: I write an eclectic generalist blog and paint flounders from all of the world’s oceans).  Am I supposed to only write about or paint middle aged Anglo-Saxon type men? What would you say about an artist like that (assuming you went deep into the alt-right to find such a freak)? I can hardly imagine a more racist or sexist thing!

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China Trade (Wayne Ferrebee, Oil on panel)

It may (maybe) be that cultural appropriation is an appropriate charge to level at mean-spirited or willfully ignorant use of imagery and ideas. Things like the black-faced minstrel tradition or (goodness help us) “Little Brown Samba” or super-sexualized harem pictures from les artistes pompiers spring to mind.  But even these are more complicated than they seem at first.

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Mermaid Appropriation?

Does that mean everyone has to know every part of the history of every image, decoration, literary concept, garment, religious symbol, allusion?  Such a world sounds ideal to me, but I think it might be an impossible (it seems like the culture critic in this case did not think out all of the historical ramifications of Chinese fashion history).

The world is more global than ever before and the prom-dress kerfluffle has made it all the way to social media in actual China.  People there are confused.  They see the dress as a compliment to the Middle Kingdom.  American teenagers are wearing traditional Chinese outfits to their formal dances. It reflects the prestige and rising strength of China.  It is (gasp) a compliment!

Maybe inner-city rappers angry about suburban white kids trying out their dope beats and mad rhymes shouldn’t be so angry.  When people want to copy your style it doesn’t always mean they want to monetize your music or enslave your ancient kingdom state or belittle your ancestors.  People might admire you! You might be winning!  Just please don’t write anything like little brown Samba.  I’m afraid that to stay atop the ever-changing terrain of the humanities you may have to at least look some things up and maybe please use your brain.

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Iggy Azalea has stolen the Tokyo Olympic Mascot’s look! or is it the other way?

In the arts and humanities ideas exist on an (ever changing) gradient.  Talking about this and thinking about people with different backgrounds and perspectives—learning their histories– is the point.  But the shifts in this gradient come from politics which is a treacherous realm. Come to think of it, maybe the critic of the prom dress was trying to use the internet to claim the mantle of victimhood and aggrandize himself in the process.  Well done. Mr. Lam, on appropriating the culture of the United States of America!

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Is that a Frenchwoman in Roman garb?

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On this day, March 22nd in 1871, William Woods Holden was the first governor in the United States to be impeached and removed from office.  His story is a reminder of what happens when pure partisan rancor becomes the norm in unhappy eras of American politics.

Before the American Civil War, Holden was a newspaper publisher who tried (unsuccessfully) to steer North Carolina on a Whiggish course towards peace.  Additionally, he politically opposed the Confederate government during the war, and so, after the rebellion was finally crushed, Andrew Johnson appointed William Woods Holden as provisional governor of North Carolina.  He lost the special gubernatorial election of 1865, but was returned to power at the head of the Republican ticket in 1868. Unlike other southern governors, Holden instituted aggressive policies to curtail the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870 he called out the state militia to crack down on the Klan which had assassinated a republican state legislator and lynched a black policeman.  The governor declared martial law in two counties and temporarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus for certain suspected Klan members.

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This upheaval became known as the Kirk-Holden war and it resulted in a severe political backlash during November of 1870 (1870 was an election year).  The North Carolina election that year was marred by vote tampering, voter suppression, and outright violence, and the Republicans lost their legislative majority (back in those days, the Democrats were the party of bigotry, intolerance, oppression, and cruelty).

After the election, William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office in in a vote which hewed exactly to party lines.  The Democrats took full control of North Carolina and moved the state away from the Reconstruction-era civil rights reforms championed by Holden (who went into self-exile in Washington DC, where he again worked on a newspaper).  However, history is a long, strange affair and William Woods Holden was fully pardoned and exonerated by unanimous vote of the North Carolina state legislature…in 2011.

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For various reasons, I have been thinking about manufacturing and small American towns and communities in the hinterland.  We’ll get back to these thoughts soon, but first here is a winsome artifact of this bygone age: a glass pageant crown from Dunkirk, Indiana.  This crown was part of an annual tradition: it was used to crown the annual “Cinderella, Queen of Glass”, during “Glass Days” a local festival in Dunkirk, which had an amazingly robust craft glass industry (not unlike some of the small cities and towns I know from West Virginia).  Cinderella’s crown was lovingly handmade and has some of the finer stylistic elements which I like in American glass.  You can find it these days in the Glass Museum at Dunkirk, which sounds like a pleasant excursion, and not nearly so forboding as the palaces, vaults, and cathedral tombs, where some of the other crowns we have featured here are located.

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I just read The Economist’s rather excellent series of articles concerning the extent to which enormous multinational conglomerates have gained dominance over the world’s economy and politics.  This article concludes that American and EU politicians will have to use a (quasi-miraculous) combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery in order to control these monopolies/cartels without risking destroying the innovation & growth which make them [the giant corporations] so valuable. I was suddenly filled with indignant fury!  Our political leaders cannot approve simple funding against Zika–a serious and universally-feared communicable disease. American politicians seem like poltroons who would rather fight each other over moronic soundbites rather than picking extremely low hanging fruit.  How can they be expected to reign in vast all-powerful companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars which wear a million aliases yet have neither face nor address?

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However, once I calmed down, I realized how dangerous and counter-productive this sort of anger is. Our indignant fury at the system is not helping us—in fact this anger at our leaders is making everything worse. And anger at the system helps one side more than the other.  Being infuriated and throwing up your hands and saying “everything is hopeless” is, itself, a partisan position.

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This is because the so-called tea-party legislators have gamed the system in a way which has diminished the system.  Namely, they have told everyone that government does not work and then they have deadlocked government so that it does not work.  They have done so in order to cynically reap electoral advantages, and in order to privatize government services and turn sundry public holdings over to their cronies.  As the government gets worse and worse—they can claim to be correct about how useless and ineffectual it all is.

This strategy is successful in that government indeed becomes less and less effective (just like the Republicans said!), but it is a dangerous strategy–like trying to take over a spaceship by turning the life-support systems off and prying open the airlocks.  Our state is already showing the sad results of such naked sabotage—but becoming angry or nihilistic about this terrible problem only magnifies the damage.  We are trapped in a feedback loop.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the Russians have been meddling in our election this year with a series of leaks, statements, vague threats, and (probably) with money. I find it alarming how similar the Russian strategy is to the tea-party strategy. A Rand Corporation spokesperson summed it up succinctly: “(The current Russian leadership) may think there is a low-cost/high-payoff way to increase the perception that the system over here is chaotic and is not reliable.” They would do such a thing in order to make autocracy look good…and apparently that is working too.

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Republicans have tried to exploit this so they can momentarily balk the demographic trends which are relegating their party to obscurity, but in doing so, they have opened a portal to hell. Indeed the tea-party people seem to have lost the momentum and they are being swept away by the autocratic and fascist-style politics they have unleashed.

Being angry at the government is how the Republicans and the Russians want you to feel.  They want the government to fail so that they can allow oligarchs to take over even more critical functions.  They want corporations (and the rich people who own them) to directly control the streets, schools, parks, and military as well as the hospitals, courts, and prisons.  They believe that you should be the plaything of autocrats and enormous monopolies.

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So I have stopped being generally angry at the election and the government. We all need to move beyond feeling so much directionless anger and fear.  These things are poisoning us. We need to gain a sense of steely calm and we need to carefully and methodically fix the problems which are undermining our superpower. This doesn’t involve saying that everything is broken and there is no point trying to fix anything.  It involves seeing that the system is broken because one of our two parties is deliberately sabotaging our state. Let’s throw out these revolting tea baggers who are defrauding us, so that society can start building things and discovering things and caring for people and the planet—oh, and busting up the monopolies which have been preventing competition and free enterprise from doing what they are supposed to do.

And if the Russians and the Republicans win, they probably can’t dismantle the entire system in 4 years.  We can throw them out then and start to bust trusts and rebuild society in 2020. I can see the bumper stickers now “Hindsight is 2020: No more President Trump!” but it would be better if we didn’t have to print such things.  It would be better if we acted like adults and sorted out our problems now with a combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery.

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It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics.  This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet).  Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes:  instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse.  Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump.  Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention.  If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.

But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed.  It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….

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Except of course we don’t really long for such things.  Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now.  The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate!  Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants!  Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!”  This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy.  It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.

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I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child.  I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then.  It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other.  Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle.  This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).

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Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem.  It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad.  Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.

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The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past.  But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.

I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump.  He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids.  It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature.  Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning.  It is not because he is a winner.

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So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.

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You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok.  Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true.  Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty.  The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too).  Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.

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Or all of the above

We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.

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Ferrebeekeeper has a longstanding obsession with Gothic concepts and forms.  We have explored the long strange historical roots of the Goths (which stretched back to the time of the Roman Empire and the northern corners of Europe), and looked at Gothic aesthetics ranging from clocks, to beds, to gates, to houses, to alphabets, to cathedrals.  Today’s Gothic-themed post straddles the divide between literature and architecture.  We already saw such a two discipline dynamic at work with the beginning of the Gothic revival, an aesthetic movement which grew up out of a popular novel The Castle of Otranto.

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The term “Steamboat Gothic” is sort of a reverse case.  In 1952, Frances Parkinson Keyes published “Steamboat Gothic” a long-winded romantic novel about the lives and loves of a riverboat gambler and his progeny as they pursue their fortunes over generations beside the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  After the novel came out the great 19th century wedding cake mansions of columns and porches which stood along these rivers came to be known as “steamboat gothic.”  This beautiful filigree style was thought to resemble the many tiered decks of great southern steamboats from the belle epoque of river travel.

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Many different Victorian design trends come together in “steamboat gothic”–the Italianate, Gothic revival, and Carpenter’s Gothic mix together with style trends like Greek revival and “nautical.” The mixture simultaneously evokes the beauties of classical antiquity, the ante-bellum south, and 19th century middle America.

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Look at these beautiful porches and porticoes.  I wish I were on the veranda of one of these beauties sipping lemonade and looking out over the river (although really I would probably be being bitten by mosquitoes as I desperately painted yet another layer of snow white paint on a big empty house).

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Apparently May is “Ride Your Bike to Work” month, but it has been so gray and wet and cold every day so far that today was the first day I peddled from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  It was still gray and cold…but there was a delightful treat on the ride!  Here is Brooklyn the flowering dogwoods are in full bloom and they were so beautiful…particularly the pink ones.

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I have always thought that I was allergic to flowering dogwood (Cornus floridus) but there is one in my backyard, and it doesn’t seem to be doing me particular harm.  Maybe I need to speak out more enthusiastically about these magnificent trees.

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I was hoping to tell a myth of the dogwood in the underworld or a stirring anecdote about its taxonomic relationship to an unexpected plant, but there is less to go on than I might have hoped.  When I was growing up, there was a myth that it was the tree Christ was crucified on and that is why it has white cross shaped flowers with red dots on the end, but this seems to be an American myth from the early 20th century.  Wikipedia helpfully notes that “The hard, dense wood [of the dogwood] has been used for products such as golf club heads, mallets, wooden rake teeth, tool handles, jeweler’s boxes and butcher’s blocks.” I guess golf clubs are ok but they are hardly a new race of human beings.

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Maybe we need to work on some myths which are as beautiful as the lovely dogwood. I am not allergic to it.  It didn’t kill Christ and, in our debased mass-market world nobody cares about what mallets and rake teeth are made of.   Does anybody out there have anything better for this beautiful tree?  I guess we could always make something up.

 

Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

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The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

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Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

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The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

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Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

Kelly Green

Hey, so Ferrebeekeeper has written about all sorts of esoteric and oddball colors, but what is up with Kelly green, a color so famous and prominent that it gets its own month? Actually, I have been avoiding writing about Kelly green because the truth is Kelly green is a pretender–a modern American color masquerading as an ancient Irish one!

A male model in a Three-piece Kelly Green suit

A male model presenting a conservative  three-piece Kelly green suit

As you probably know by now, Kelly green is a bright mid-tone green which inclines toward yellow rather than blue. It looks like newly sprouted grass and it stands out to our primate eyes/brains–probably because of ancient dietary issues of our monkey-like forbears (although all sorts of respectable people and institutions constantly appear on the news exhorting us to eat more salad). Different sources give different dates for the first known references to Kelly Green as either 1917 or 1927, so the color does not even reach back as far as the great waves of Irish immigration, but is a wholly modern invention. Indeed it seems like someone chose the brightest grass green color and named it after a short punchy Irish surname (which sounds like the modus-operandi of Madison Avenue, political operators, Hollywood, or some other enclave of sharkish American marketers).

Saint Patrick's Day Noisemakers

Saint Patrick’s Day Noisemakers

Throughout the twentieth century the color was further popularized by representing all sorts of professional and semi-professional sports teams, but it has found its greatest hold on our collective attention as the heraldic color of Saint Patrick’s Day and the month of March in general. In my head, the name instantly evokes puking teenagers with wigs, cheap clothes, and plastic spangles all of the brightest Kelly green.

Saint Patrick's Day in Chicago Illinois

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago Illinois

Yet the history of Kelly green (or lack thereof) needs not interfere with the appreciation of the color! I have never been to Ireland, but I have laid eyes on it from a plane and it was indeed a rainbow of brilliant yellow-greens. In the populous northern hemisphere, March is the month when the new grasses–and all sorts of other plants–begin to return from winter dormancy so the marketers hit upon a deeper truth of the biosphere. Also, I have been that greensick teenager with a plastic derby and it was horrible and glorious. The color is a perfect representation of early springtime in one’s life as well as in the broader ecosystems of the temperate region!

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

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