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My roommate Rennie is also a flower gardening enthusiast, but what he likes is morning glories. To make this work in Brooklyn, where space is limited, he gardens in the front yard (where there is lots of light and lots of things to climb on) and I plant my shade garden in the tree-filled back yard (admittedly, I plant a few morning glories to climb up onto the broken down structure behind the Haitian Church behind us).

Anyway, last year, Rennie ran around collecting all of the seeds from the morning glories he raised in the front yard (Grandpa Ott, chocolate cocoa, & flying saucers) and the ones I raised in the back (crimson rambler, Carnevale di Venezia, and Harlequin). He planted them all in big plastic planters and throughout the long hot summer of drought he has lugged out bucket after bucket of dehumidifier water straight from the dank basement for the thirst tropical flowers.

Unfortunately these pictures do not do them justice–the pure glowing colors are almost psychedelic–but even through the lens of my cellphone the beauty is still evident. His morning glory garden is such a triumph and it has been giving me a few seconds of unbridled joy each morning as I run past trying to get to my morning subway (mornings are not my best time–but the flowers help a bit).

I even unexpectedly captured a special visitor. Perhaps you remember this post from the depths of 2020 about rescuing a little carpenter bee which keeled over from exertion. Well, I noticed that a carpenter bee was rooting around in one of the cocoa-colored trumpets and took a close-up picture before rushing off to work. The picture came out far better than I would have expected (who knew my cheap phone had such a good macro function?). Admittedly, I only captured the carpenter bee’s behind (beehind?) but the lens picked out all of the individual grains of pollen caught up on the bee’s fur. Additionally, you can see the glistening luster of the cells which make up the flower.

September may be the second best garden month in Brooklyn: I will see if I can get some more pictures from the back yard and from the front one, before the magic fades. In the mean time, I will just assume that this bee is a direct descendant of that earlier one, just like these vines are all children of last year’s flowers. Also, thanks Rennie!

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

I was recently back at the family farm (which is in the Ohio Valley). Since I almost never go there in late autumn it gave me a precious opportunity to see some of my favorite trees wearing their brilliant fall raiment. Unfortunately I am no photographer–and I never found the time to paint a watercolor painting of autumn’s beauty–however I wanted to share the two most magnificent trees.

Here is the bald cypress which we planted to emulate grandpa’s bald cypress in Weston (which was apparently chopped down the moment he left his house). This tree is a young bald cypress, and it would still be in middle school if it was a human (which fortunately it is not, since it would be a dull child standing beside a goose pond all day), however it is already beginning to develop the knobby swamp knees and flying buttresses characteristic of the great cathedral cypresses of the southern swamp. It is maybe 6 meters (20 feet tall) and it is growing fast. I wish I could have captured the beauty of its warm orange fronds, because in the setting sun they glowed like it was a little ember from the November sun. I wish I could explain to you how winsome the tree is. There is something about all of the Cupressaceae which makes one want to hug them like a robe wearing lunatic from Northern California.

The second tree was my parents’ first choice of trees to plant and it is beginning to reach stunning maturity. It is a pecan tree and it is starting to produce nuts. You can’t see how large it is, but it probably about 13 or 14 meters (45 plus feet) and it is also growing fast. Sadly I could not capture its size with pictures (I need a giraffe or a basketball player to go stand beside it), but when you are near it, you now get a feeling of awe–in addition to whatever appreciation you have for its graceful lines and lovely proportions. There are larger trees back in the forest, but they are forest oaks, walnuts, and hickory which grow tall and straight and do not spread like the glorious pecan. Pecan trees are capable of growing to 40 meters (130 feet) in height with a spread of 22 meters (75 feet) so we will keep hoping that none of the freakish storms which have been growing in number and strength bedevil either of these beloved trees before they reach that kind of height. I wish you could actually see these trees–they are so beautiful!

It is Thanksgiving week and Ferrebeekeeper has a couple of little appetizer articles planned to post here before the great feast, however, before we get to those, I would like to talk about something which I have only become truly thankful for of late in life. Devout readers know that I love colors and I sometimes rue America’s puritan distrust of brilliant scintillating colors (I was recently at an airport in Richmond and everyone there was wearing black, blue, white or oatmeal!). Wouldn’t life be better if it was like a tropical coral reef or a city in Tamil Nadu?

Except, for some reason this year the Thanksgiving color palette is calling to me with a greater allure than it has ever possessed. Among the holiday color palettes Thanksgiving is the odd one out. New Years is gold, silver, and jewel-tones. Valentine’s day is bright red and hot pink. Saint Patrick’s Day is Kelly green and gold. Easter is a rainbow of cheerful pastels. Summer colors are superhero colors of red, blue, white, yellow, and green. Halloween is orange, black, purple and green. Christmas is red, green, and gold. However, Thanksgiving is russet, burgundy, harvest gold, and drab. It’s like a sheet set from 1975! Except now I see that within that rainbow of brown is the stubble in the autumn fields, and the feathers of buff turkeys, and the g;owing leaves of the bald cypress before they fall away.

Throughout my life I have chafed at the earth toned hues of autumn, but suddenly they seem more beautiful than I can ever remember. It is like they are not trying to sell some god-forsaken novelty or social pretense but are are simply the colors of Mother Earth herself.

Anyway, I don’t have a bigger point–although my other posts this week are related to this and come to think of it, lately my artwork has changed to reflect the somber beauty of the autumn woodlands too. Maybe I am finally coming to except that I will never be a triggerfish or a macaw and must be content to be an olive flounder or a tawny owl…or maybe the next season will reveal a new set of colors which delight me and my tastes will keep changing like the seasons and the years.

Sometimes when my mind has been hopelessly corrupted by the pointless drudgery of my dayjob (a syndrome which, alas, also impairs efficacious blogging) I like to look at the exquisite golden objects from Indonesia which are on display at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Through some strange accident (which almost certainly involved vast fossil fuel wealth) the Houston museum has the finest collection of Indonesian gold outside of Jakarta. We have seen some of these otherworldly status objects here on Ferrebeekeeper before, but today’s golden crown suits my taste even more than previous selections. Unfortunately, the Houston museum’s collection is poorly explained, and the internet simply identifies this as an ancestral gold crown from the Moluccas circa 15th to 17th century. Why are the greatest beauties always so mysterious?

The Moluccas (AKA Maluku) are a pretty mysterious place in their own right, having been continuously inhabited by humans since the first great migration out of Africa 80,000 years ago (dates may be subject to variance!). As Austronesian, Melanesian, and eventually Malay (and then, in historical times, Chinese and European) people traveled through the great ecological and cultural crossroads, all sorts of ideas became mixed together. This headress though is not 100% alien… it has certain similarities to some of the Balinese carvings I have seen–which is to say it comes from a Hindu cultural tradition coming southwards from Malaysia and South East Asia. There are shades of the fantastical headdresses of the apsaras here! Yet I don’t see this piece as completely Hindu or southeast Asian either. The ornament and the figures have a vigorous & sumptuous aspect which strikes me as thoroughly Indonesian. Whatever the case, I could look at this enigmatic crown all day! If anyone out there knows anything about it (or even has any speculative ideas like mine above) I would love to hear from you!

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Yesterday’s deplorable rampage at the United States Capitol has left me thinking about Washington D.C. which used to be the city I knew best (I went to high school in Falls Church, VA, which is inside the beltway). Outside of the famous federal district at the city’s heart, Washington in the 1990s was a dangerous place! Murders spiked there in 1991, when there were 482 murders within a city of 600,000 people. Since those days, the USA’s power and prestige has declined, but Washington has burgeoned. Now the federal part of DC around the capitol is apparently filled with armed lunatics in crazy clothes and Columbia Heights is a thriving posh neighborhood! (it was quite the opposite 30 years ago).

I only went to the Capitol on school field trips or when relatives were in town, however, I used to know the museums, the Library of Congress, and Union Station very well. I hadn’t thought too much about all of this for years (except for the Smithsonian, which I think about often). However, yesterday’s debacle made me reflect upon the Victorian/Greco-Roman splendor of the Capitol itself and suddenly I remembered the United States Botanic Garden, which is tucked away on the Capitol’s Southwest Corner! The garden has been there, in one form or another, since 1820. The centerpiece of the garden is a Victorian style glass house where various rare tropical plants from the Wilkes expedition were originally housed (and which has featured beautiful collections of warm-temperature plants ever since). When I was younger I used to go there and marvel at the sumptuous tropical luxury combined with 19th century visual opulence. The resultant mixture is difficult to describe but entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of the Capitol complex. (Additionally, Grandma Connie loved the Botanic Garden and would sometimes enthuse about it as one of Washington DC’s true treasures).

A model of the U.S. Capitol…inside the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory

I was trying to write a garden essay to try and get us through this anxious fortnight until January 20th. However that hasn’t quite happened. I suppose this somewhat maundering essay is a paean to Washington DC, always a city of perplexing & vertiginous juxtapositions. Seeing Donald Trump’s brownshirts and proudboys looting the Capitol like Visigoths was a private emotional injury to add to the grotesque civic affront of Trump’s electoral assault. Perhaps there is a metaphor there: the Capitol (and its surrounding complex) are the home of American democracy. Use of these buildings (and the franchise they represent) is a shared responsibility and privilege for all Americans. To see the Capitol abused by fascists hellbent on overturning our democracy for the personal and private benefit of their godking (the ludicrous Donald Trump!) is a shared national trauma. We can and will refurbish and reopen everything, but we have some regrowing (and some weeding) we need to tend to!

Since we were thinking about Baroque, um, geologists yesterday, I decided to stay in the same era and present this magnificent harpsichord which was made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1643. Just look at this incredible instrument! I really wish we had a sound clip so you could hear the harpsichord’s sweet voice which has apparently staid lovely over all of these years (the resonant soundboard was apparently the true irreducible component of the device). The rest of the instrument though is a bit like the ship of Theseus. The keyboard and action were enlarged and replaced in France in the 19th century which is also when the gold baroque ornaments were added all over the case. Evidently actual baroque harpsichords were more simple and had cleaner lines, but the 19th century owners had little use for the harpsichord as a musical instrument and kept it as a work of art (and so they wanted it to be more ornamental).

The actual artwork on the case is from the 17th century (although it has been retouched) and shows Greco Roman gods and goddesses making music and desporting themselves among melancholy classical ruins. The soundboard itself may be an even finer artwork and is filled with birds, flowers, summer insects, and shrimp.

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

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