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Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China. This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions). The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one. I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb. The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.
A persimmon is a berry which grows on a persimmon tree, a group of species within the larger group Diospyros. The Diospyros trees are part of the majestic ebony family, and indeed persimmon trees are likewise noted for their hard, dense, elegant wood. The Diospyros are widespread trees, and native species of persimmon can be found in East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Philippines, and North America.
Persimmon berries (or fruit, as people call them) are an excellent source of dietary fiber, manganese, and beta-carotene (which people are always banging on about, but which I think is overrated). They do not otherwise contain significant nutrients…except perhaps sugars (once they have been sufficiently ripened or bletted). Unripe persimmons are astringent and somewhat indigestible. Indeed, green persimmons are noted for sometimes causing bezoars in humans who eat lots of green persimmons–the unripened flesh polymerizes into a woody ball which traps other food materials. These horrifying lumps can necessitate surgery (although apparently coca-cola dissolves them).
Persimmon trees are rugged and grow fast. Not only do their blossoms emerge after their leaves, which protects the buds from frost, they can also survive in polluted or unfavorable situations. My grandfather had a garden and a fruit orchard next to the Chesapeake Bay. The East Coast is slowly (or maybe not-so-slowly) receding into the ocean and the persimmons lived shockingly close to the saltwater until Hurricane Fran knocked them down in 1996. Throwing a football around while running across the slippery rotting fruit is my foremost persimmon memories, although I have also drunk the Korean spicy punch called sujeonggwa (and I found it delightful). Maybe I should try making a persimmon pie!
Additionally there is a beautiful autumnal orange color named after persimmon. It is a mid-tone orange with hints of red, almost the same hue as senior republicans, but slightly darker with woody brown notes. I like to write about seasonally appropriate colors, and I can hardly think of a hue more suited to early November (unless it is some sort of russet or woodland gray).
Color transcends history. The wavelengths of light…the chemical compositions of the pigments…these things are part of the physical universe. Yet how we apprehend color is a part of our eyes, and our minds, and our upbringings (and involves some quirks unique to human physiology—as demonstrated by the colors magenta and stygian blue). Most of the colors I write about were first mentioned in the 18th or 19th century. Some colors are vastly older—like Han purple (which I like more all the time, by the way). However today I am writing about a color first mentioned in the distant year of…2009. This color found a name after the rise and fall of Britney Spears. The great recession had already set in by the time this color made the scene. I am talking, of course about “Arctic Lime” which was invented by Crayola’s for its “eXtreme” line of ultra-bright colored pencils.
At first gasp, Arctic lime seems like a sad effort by a marketer who was not at the top of his game. Chartreuse and the Arctic do not initially go together in the popular imagination (nor do tropical limes belong in the frozen tundra). Yet the more one looks at this hue, the more it makes sense. It is not the color of ice, but it is the color of the aurora as it sweeps past inhuman vistas of alien frozen waste. Also, Arctic lime may not have a beautiful name, but it is a beautiful color (in its own unnatural and eXtreme way). Perhaps people of the far future will think of this color the way we think of Han Purple and they will imagine us going about our lives in Arctic Lime leisure clothes and neckties. Come to think of it, the color is pretty similar to the high-visability fluorescent green of my bike helmet. Maybe the imaginary people of the future are imagining us more accurately than we imagine ourselves!
A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).
More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).
All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.
It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color. You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century). Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?
Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover! Curse you infernal tricksters!
Expanded-color image of Mercury’s 52-km Degas crater, showing an abundance of dark material (NASA)
Today brings interesting color themed news from outer space. The Messenger space craft (which was destroyed when it was deliberately crashed into Mercury in spring of 2015) spotted numerous mysterious dark spots on Mercury. Indeed the Messenger spacecraft probably now is a dark spot on Mercury. Apparently the small dense planet has a dark layer close beneath the surface. Asteroid impacts, volcanoes, space probe collisions, and other events which disturb the surface of the planet reveal this extremely dark black/gray layer.
Scientists have been analyzing the data from Messenger and it now seems that this black layer which is the color and texture of pencil lead is actually composed of…graphite, the same material as pencil lead! Apparently when Mercury formed (which featured strange geological processes unseen anywhere else in the solar system) a planet-sized ocean of lava covered the entire world. As Mercury cooled the heavier elements of this lava field crystallized and sank leaving the buoyant pure carbon at the top. This dark layer has been subsequently covered with ejecta, dust, and fragments, but any disruption shows the crystallized carbon is still there.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
There is a lot more data from Messenger left to analyze. I wonder what other surprises the closest planet to the sun still holds.
DeBrazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) Photo by In Cherl Kim
So far, Primate Week has been a huge success! The Year of the Fire Monkey has featured the loudest land animal, the immortal magician monkey god, and the disconcerting calculus of Dunbar’s number. There is still another topic which I wanted to address—an important primate post which I have planned to write for a long time–but it is almost midnight on Friday night, so I am going to bunt with a quick gallery post about color. Last week I wrote a piece about humankind’s love for the color red. I blithely assured everyone that primates are the most colorful mammals…however I didn’t back that up with any images.
Therefore, here are some beautifully colorful primates. I am only listing the species and the source (where available) so that you can revel in the beautiful color of these monkeys. If you want to learn what these colors betoken and how each species evolved such lovely patterns, you will have to look elsewhere. I have done my best to label each picture, but the WordPress function which allows a a blog’s creator to label images has been broken a long time (at least for the template I use). If you have any questions, just ask in the comments!
The mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx)
The Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei)
The golden snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana)
Emperor Tamarin (Saguinus imperator)
Bald-headed uakari (Cacajao calvus) photo by Luis Louro
Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirkii) Olivier Lejade
Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)
Red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus)
It is a pretty intense rainbow! Look at how expressive their faces are. It is possible to read the personality of each monkey. Some of them remind of acquaintances from secondary school or world leaders, but of course we humans are not quite so colorful. Still we can pull off a mean combination of orange pink and brown in our own right. We also change colors somewhat when we are aroused, angry, or afraid! Colorful mammals indeed!
Human (Homo Sapiens) photo by Luis Aragon
Today (February 5th) is “National Wear Red Day” yet another phlegmatic pseudo-holiday in the short-yet-ever-so-long month of February. However there is a great fundamental truth buried in National Wear Red Day. Aside from working out day and night or becoming a multi-millionaire celebrity, wearing red is one of the few things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential mates (I am just assuming that you are a classical human being–if you are a futuristic cyborg, or an alien lifeform, or a super-intelligent animal of some other sort, please, please, please leave a comment, even if its a thousand years from when I write this).
I am somewhat foreshadowing next week’s theme, but primates are the most colorful mammals. For monkeys and apes and hominids, colors carry all sorts of highly-charged hierarchical, social, and physiological messages. At a conscious level, we may be only dimly aware of these signifiers, but they apparently come through loud and clear to our endocrine systems. Administrators at dating sites report a 6% boost of positive replies to people wearing red in their profile pictures. Scientists and psychologists have found similar results in experiments which query men and women about the attractiveness of photographs of people of the opposite gender.
The power of wearing red extends beyond the bedroom to the business and sports realms. Teams that have red uniforms have been demonstrated to have greater likelihood of victory (although I shudder to imagine how statisticians figured that out). The power of the not-very-imaginatively-named “power tie” is well known (at least anecdotally). Even in battle, red seems to have once conferred an advantage. The troops of great empires have had a way of wearing red garb (although, admittedly, advances in gunnery and tactics seem to have greatly negated–or reversed this trend). The Roman legions wore red. The British redcoats uh, wore red. The Chinese super-lucky national color is red. Kelly Lebrock wore red. So ignore how stupid it sounds. Shrug off your inhibitions (and your national reticence to take orders from a day of the month) and wear red.
Unless You are Steve Seagal
From the 1830s through the late 1850s, the capital of winemaking in the United States was Ohio. Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati successfully planted great vineyards of Catawba grapes along the Ohio River. He had moderate success making sweet white wines but his greatest success came after he accidentally produced a sweet sparkling wine which oenophiles of the day likened to French champagne. The sparkling wines of Ohio became briefly internationally famous and bon vivants of the East Coast, Victorian England, and continental Europe paid top dollar for what was regarded as a premium International luxury beverage. Odes to the grape were written by famous poets and the Ohio valley briefly resembled Ardennes.
The Catawba grapes which were at the center of this Bacchic empire were a dark brownish pink/purple grape from the East Coast. They were said to be a hybrid of native American grapes and imported European vines, although where the distinctive grapes and the distinctive name actually came from is seemingly lost in history (which is to say it was probably all a marketing stunt by Longworth). The grapes themselves were sweet red grapes with a tendency to have a foxy flavor (which sounds like more marketing language for unpleasant muskiness). The vines grew vigorously but were subject to attack from powdery mildew. In the 1860s powdery mildew joined forces with economic devastation and dislocation of the American Civil War to crush the nascent Ohio wine industry to such a thorough extent that it sounds like I am writing about alternate universe history.
The entire reason I bring up this boom and bust story is because it is memorialized in a very beautiful color, Catawba, a pretty organic shade of brownish pinkish purple. Now whenever you see the delightful color (which is used less than it should be), you can think of how Ohio might have become a land of rolling rivers, chateaus, monasteries, lavender fields, and fine living….
(Call me crazy, but this kind of looks like Ohio with a beautiful medieval town in it…)
One of my favorite clothing colors is “French Blue” a brilliant bright ultramarine color which is best known for its use in men’s suits and shirts. French Blue is the same color as French ultramarine—the synthetic version of ultramarine (a princely and ancient pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli). It’s hard to tell if “French Blue” is really French or not—I couldn’t find the equivalent in this French dictionary of color, but it is certainly beautiful and fashionable.
I carry around a little Moleskine sketchbook and a tin of pencils and I doodle whimsical little scenes on the train and at lunch. Here are some scenes from the last fortnight!
After writing my Halloween-time post about the Moche and their bat-theme pottery I was not done with their exhilarating & scary style. This is a cartoony-yet somehow intense and impressive picture of spirit beings from the long-lost world of the Moche, brought to life again after all of these years by the magic of art. The decapitator is there in the right. Various night creatures and spirit folk surround the great murderous sea god…his claws twitch open, hungry for necks to cut….
For Halloween I was Don Quixote. I carried a little model windmill around so I could say “Forsooth! I caught this baby monster!” I made the windmill myself out of detritus I found in the recycling pile—in the same style as my unpublished book of toy vehicles. This was the preliminary sketch for my toy windmill, but I colored it in and added little autumn figures around it.
Speaking of Halloween, here are some revelers at a costume party I attended: it was a party for a theatre-troupe “One Year Lease” which puts on thought-provoking (or otherwise provocative) plays in Manhattan and Greece. The woman with the goat legs was dressed as some sort of androgynous Welsh nature spirit—she had one of the best outfits I have ever seen. The person dancing in the middle was supposed to be a time traveler from the future world of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” His suit lit up and made loud futuristic rock-and-roll noises.
Also with a fantastic bent, here is a drawing of a giant mechanized hippopotamus surrounded by fairy folk and oddballs. There is a bear with pantaloons, a composer, and two sentient hot-dogs (?). A willow tree buds in front of the dazzling sun. What does it all mean?
Finally here is a woman with pink accessories riding the train. She was completely lost in her cell phone and never once looked up at the crazy spectacles in the train car. Fortunately I was there to sketch it all down in my little book.