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Today we head to the other side of the world to check out a very special mollusk— the black lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). This oyster is a suspension feeder which thrives in tropical coral seas amidst the colorful darting fish, exquisite anemones, and amazing biodiversity of reef life. The black lip oyster lives from the Persian Gulf, throughout the northern Indian Ocean across the IndoPacific divide up to Japan and around the islands of Micronesia, and Polynesia. However it is not the oyster’s (enviable) lifestyle that makes it famous, but what it produces –Tahitian pearls aka black pearls.
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Tahitian pearls are one of the four great categories of cultured pearls. They occur in a rainbow variety of colors but mostly are charcoal, silver, or dark green with an iridescent sheen of green, purple, silver, blue, or gold. Since the black lip oyster is an exceedingly large mollusk, which can grow to weight of more than 4 kilograms (8-10 pounds), it can produce a capacious harvest of cultured pearls and can also produce extremely large pearls. The name black pearls is evocative and poetic and descriptive (since the pearls are dark), however true black Tahitian pearls are rare and precious.
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When I was growing up in southwest Ohio, far from the beach, I remember encountering all sorts of stories concerning black pearls–thrilling tales of pearl divers, pirates, mermaid, giant Manta rays and such-like exoticism of a past era–however seemingly the internet, globalized commerce, and industrial aquaculture have taken some of the luster from these bright dreams (or do preadolescents still have feverish conversations about black pearls?). Maybe that was all because of the eighties and that decades taste for the darkly exotic and colorful….yet whatever the tastes and tides of fashion, I still find black pearls remarkably beautiful, and I would like to seek out some crowns and myths for you to adorn Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category. Hopefully I can avoid being cursed by a manta ray spirit (which, in retrospect, sounds beautiful and gentle)…but I promise nothing!
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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

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Sorry the blog posts were a bit exiguous this long beautiful June week…to makeup for it, here is a flower: a lovely tiger lily which is in full bloom in my Brooklyn garden, in fact. Lilies are right up there with roses and irises and tulips as the quintessential beautiful garden flowers–and for good reason, look at the amazing glowing orange like magma or a sunset! I love lilies and I need to get some more, but right now we can continue to celebrate the sun and its summer ascendancy with this lovely sunny plant!

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This is the great Gothic window of Milan Cathedral. With its sinuous hypnotic grace, It is an exceedingly beautiful design: the window looks almost alive, like a sessile organism of the deep sea. It is ornate and strong and fragile all at one. The design is not really very characteristic of Italian churches. Because of Milanese politics, a French engineer/designer was, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, to build out the church in the late 14th century. Nicolas added flourishes in the style of Rayonnant Gothic—a French architectural style which emphasized elaborate 2 dimensional patterns. I wish I could go to Milan and look at this, but, um I am too busy doing important things in Brooklyn. Milan will have to wait…
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My iris is blooming today. I have blogged about it in the past (it’s a dark violet iris named “Night Ruler”), but it is so beautiful. It reminds me of how much I like irises (for the one week or less when they bloom).

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In celebration, I went to an amazing iris catalog online and looked up some other irises to fantasize what else I would plant if I had more sunny space in the garden. The online iris shop was amazing: each iris was more beautiful than the last and I soon became besotted with ruffles of magenta, black, caramel, icterine, and blue. Yet the best aspect of the whole endeavor were the beautiful madcap names. It turns out that weird computer algorithms cannot keep pace in any way with the visionary poets who name irises.
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A single random sweep gives us names such as “Vizier”, “Daughter of Stars”, “P.T. Barnum”, “Vigilante”, “Halo Everybody”, and “Sordid Lives.” These are not random names either—each of the irises has a moral quality which makes the reason they are named instantly recognizable. “Mango Queen” (above)looks like a female sovereign made entirely of mango flesh. “Sordid Lives” (below) is a big flouncy, heady mixture of plum, ivory, and stained brown. “Beach Dance” looks like an 80s movie I saw on cable once.
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My overall favorite (in case you have your credit card out and have decided to show your love of this blog in rhizome form) is a big German Iris named “Beefy” (at bottom) which looks like a bleeding hunk of rare roast beef in the form of an exquisite flounder. There are aesthetic marvels of beauty, horror, and wonder out there in the garden my friends. Let me know which ones are your favorites!
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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.
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Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.
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Ok, spring is moving by pretty fast. Where does the time go? However, despite the false spring back in February, the tulips in my garden came out really well this year! I thought I would share the pictures of the late tulips with you. These are lily flowering tulips. The delicate orange ones are named “Ballerina.” I bought them from a Dutch company which shipped the bulbs across the ocean last autumn. I lovingly planted them in a prime spot in the golden light of October.
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Yet, I think the pink and white ones are even prettier. Their name is apparently “Lowe’s Discount Bin.” I bought them for three dollars and forgot they were in a plastic bag under my bed until I found them in January beginning to sprout among my socks and science fiction novels. I rushed out into the slush and hastily buried them in cold shallow divots and assumed they would all die. You get what you pay for, right?
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Apparently not. The beauty of these tulips was undiminished by their low price and my slipshod gardening. I wonder if they will come back next year, and I wonder how I will ever find more of them.

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I have fallen in love with these colorful fabric sculptures by the great contemporary Chilean sculptor,Serena Garcia Dalla Venezia. Her works are simple conglomerations of little hand-sewn fabric balls and yet look at them: they are dazzling alien landscapes which also evoke the world of cell biology or coral reefs.
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Each work also combines color with visionary bravura. It is strange how the most simple ideas can expand into a world of captivating otherworldly beauty. Bravo to Serena Garcia Dalla Venezia. I look forward to seeing more of her gorgeous works and finding out more about her oeuvres.
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