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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!

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The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

Winter always stays a bit too long, and, after the blustery snow storms of March, you can always find me out in the garden frowning at the mud and waiting the first living things to pop up out of the thawing earth. Usually the hellebores bloom first followed by the crocuses, and then the whole symphony of blooms truly begins in earnest. This year, however, featured an unexpected player sounding the first note of the overture. After a light snow, I went out into the garden and found that the dark, cold earth was packed with pretty little mushrooms strewn across a portion of the garden about the size of a queen sized mattress. The mushrooms ranged in size from pencil eraser to a quarter-dollar-piece and were a lovely shade of burnt sienna.

Mushrooms are really the fruiting bodies of much larger underground organisms which are composed of delicate networks of threadlike hyphae. These elaborate filament networks are mutualistic with the roots & bacteria which make up the mysterious subterranean ecosystem. I would tell you more about this, but I don’t know more. Mushrooms are a truly mysterious hidden kingdom of life to me. I know some strange factoids about their cellular structure: primitive fungal cells are motile (!) whereas higher fungi have cellular septae, which allow organelles to be shared by many cells! I know the largest living organism known is a fungus. And of course everyone knows about the aesthetic (and chemical) range of mushrooms which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (and can be poisonous, medicinal, nutritious, or horrid, depending on mushroom type).

These mushrooms were quite pretty (in an earthy way) however my camera was not very good at differentiating them from the bark and leaf litter. In real life, they did stand out to the human eye, which raises yet more questions about their nature and composition. I am glad they are there, waiting underground and I will think about them as a larger part of the true garden (along with strange wasps, brown creepers, pseudoscorpions and tiny fluorescent dayflowers). If anyone knows any actual facts about these little fungi, kindly let me know. We will commence the regularly scheduled floral part of the spring symphony in the immediate future!

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.

One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most successful and beloved posts ever was about the topic of brown flowers (and we have had a follow-up post or two along the line as well). This is why I am happy to post some lovely pale brown flowers from in front of the house. Here are some morning glories which my roommate Rennie planted and which are coming on strong as the summer begins to fade. Look at how beautiful and subtle the colors are. I never thought I would be singing the praises of beige flowers on strangler vines, but it has been a long year and they really are gorgeous. I need to take a picture of the front of the house which features other morning glories like Grandpa Ott, a bright pink morning glory, and even some picotee violet blossoms, but it is hard to get my act together in the mornings.

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate.  To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) .  Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness.  In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art.  There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.

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So, I tremendously appreciated all of the thoughtful responses to last week’s post about branding.  I took all of your kind words and good ideas to heart and I am continuing to mull over the secret mysteries of what makes some things so profoundly popular.  In fact, this concept of branding (and the psychological and practical underpinnings of recognizable things) bears on today’s post about color…specifically about the color brown, which Ferrebeekeeper has shamefully overlooked in the many posts concerning different hues.  But first, we must digress back to America’s railroad past…

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

The Pullman Co. was a railroad concern which operated sleeping cars from 1867 until 1968 throughout the United States. The name was legendary for comfort, style, and service.  Pullman was a visionary entrepreneur who discovered inspiration in a bad railroad journey he had suffered during his youth. This uncomfortable ordeal became the impetus for a lifelong obsession with traveling well.  His cars featured comfortable foldaway beds, separator drapes, fashionable furniture, and other amenities unknown in the day. In time there were even libraries, dining rooms, and rolling kitchens which served meals cooked on the (traveling) premises.

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The Pullman Co. also played a big role in African American history, since the attendants who worked on Pullman cars—the equally legendary Pullman porters–were largely black.  The porters’ union was important in American labor struggles and was one of the first nationally organized entities to stand up for African-American concerns at the workplace and beyond.

In fact, the story of the company touches on all sorts of different aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century life. There was a sprawling company town in Illinois where everything was Pullman.  There were horrifying strikes, and strange incestuous deals with railroad monopolies, and all sorts of turn of the century business and political shenanigans.  Eventually there were manufacturing alliances, and anti-trust cases. However all of this is part of a different & bigger story…

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Gosh…

As the railroads were replaced by highly dangerous automobiles, the Pullman Company attempted to branch out into trolleys and even buses, but the concept of comfortable and elegant travel was doomed to fade from the world.  Sadly the era of luxury travel by light rail has receded into the storied past and Pullman cars seem like they belong to a vastly bygone era—like clipper ships, powdered wigs, or eel pies.

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

However, the name does not just live on in sad railroad ballads, it also had an associated color—Pullman brown.   Pullman selected a shade of brown for aesthetic reasons and because it was easy to clean (no mean feat on a nineteenth century railroad).   Presumably he liked the color too (although here I am speculating). When the company died, this color lived on…and there was another national company which operated big boxy wheeled things ready to pounce.  People who have never seen a Pullman sleeper car should instantly recognize the color, because UPS uses it as an integral part of their brand.  All UPS trucks and uniforms are Pullman brown.

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The reasons for this are multifold. Perhaps most importantly most parcels were (and are) packaged in brown cardboard so the association was natural.  Also the color apparently is easy to keep clean (or perhaps a more punctilious person would say it doesn’t show dirt).   Apparently, early on, UPS discovered that people had fond memories of Pullman brown and associated it with luxury and competence. Today UPS has all sorts of trademarks, patents, and suchlike legalistic protections over the color (!) and it is even part of their off-putting slogan “What can Brown do for you?”  I wonder what other corporate branding choices trace their history back into bygone worlds.

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