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My garden this year was not necessarily the magical success which I had hoped for it to be…but that’s ok, I can just write about someone else’s garden.  My go-to garden for this kind of lazy blogging is Longwood Garden, a magical gilded age paradise in Chester County Pennsylvania which was the summer seat of the DuPont family.

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Autumn is not the traditional apex of the gardening season, however Longwood Garden is such a stupendous garden that its planners can insouciantly eschew such conventional thinking.  Every season is the apex of the gardening season there…up to and including winter (which is no petty feat in our temperate clime).  To celebrate late autumn, Longwood created a Chrysanthemum festival with thousands of chrysanthemums agonizingly shaped into geometric forms by otherworldly patience (and by weird sadistic potting contraptions).

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The effect is stupendous—it’s like what would happen if the world were invaded and colonized by beautiful alien flowers with a disturbing penchant for symmetry (although I guess that sort of did happen at the end of the Cretaceous).  I hope someday I manage to actually get to Longwood to see the Chrysanthemum Festival in person.  These pictures never do justice to the ineffable power of their pleasure gardens.  The show runs until November the 19th so maybe my East Coast readers want to visit too.

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2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year's Mid-Autumn festival

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year’s Mid-Autumn festival

Today is a special day! Not only is it the Autumn Festival (Mooncake Day), a lunar harvest (and moon-viewing) festival celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese.  It is also the last “supermoon” full lunar eclipse for the next 18 years.  A “supermoon” happens when the moon is at the closest point in its orbit around Earth. From Earth’s surface (where most of my readers live) the moon thus appears 14% larger and 33% brighter than other full moons. When such a supermoon is eclipsed by the shadow of Earth, the event is known as a “blood moon” by imaginative neopagans and by fundamentalist Christians who hope the world will end soon (and by bloggers desperate for hits).  The blood moon designation comes not just because of cultists’ violent fantasy, but because the moon takes on a red tinge during the event.

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist's interpretation)

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist’s interpretation)

Bloodmoon eclipses are rare and there have been none for 33 years—then suddenly four in short succession: tonight’s eclipse will be the final of the batch.  I missed the last bloodmoons thanks to clouds and scheduling mishaps…and who knows what I will be doing 18 years from now (hopefully showing beautiful paintings in a fancy gallery or directing cyborgs on a floating city above Venus…but probably decomposing or still working as a lackey in title insurance).  Tonight’s event begins at 9:07 PM EST and maximum umbra (“shadow”) occurs at 10:48 PM.

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I baked a turkey and made an almond pie for the celestial event (although dark clouds are already swirling on the horizon).  Hopefully some of you will join me on rooftops, observatory turrets, and in special moon-viewing pavilions to watch the celestial show!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof...it's really hard to draw in the dark!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof…it’s really hard to draw in the dark!

New York's San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s annual Feast of San Gennaro festival is celebrated every autumn in Manhattan’s “Little Italy” district. This year’s festival will be the 89th occurrence of this religious holiday which originated in Naples and came to New York with the great wave of Italian immigrants who migrated to the Big Apple in the 19th century (and who give the city so much of its character). In 2015 the celebration begins on Thursday, September 10th. [Mock Gasp!] Hey, that’s today!

San Gennaro's golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

San Gennaro’s golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

To celebrate San Gennaro, here is the ceremonial miter worn by the saint’s statue in the original festival which has been a major part of life in Naples since the 14th century (at least). According to folklore, the saint was originally a Roman martyr named Januarius killed during the Diocletian persecutions.  He occasionally intercedes to prevent Vesuvius from destroying Naples (or to otherwise help out the city which is under his care). Since the middle ages, various monarchs, nobles, popes, and sundry bigwigs have donated jewelry to the saint—who has accumulated a tremendous collection which is (probably incorrectly) said to rival the English crown jewels in value.

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San Genaro’s jewelry is housed in a vault in the Museum of the Treasure of St. Gennaro, itself located beneath the arcade of the Cathedral of St. Gennaro. The most famous and important pieces are the necklace (with a jeweled cross from Napoleon) and the ampule (whatever that is), but this blog is concerned with crowns–and this fantastically jeweled miter has a reasonable claim to such status since it is “decorated with 3,964 diamonds, rubies and emeralds.”

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

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There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).

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Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

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Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.

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Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

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Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

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The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

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Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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King Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on canvas)

King Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on canvas)

In the Northern hemisphere today is the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. Here in Brooklyn, the Saturday closest to the solstice (which, this year, happens to also be the solstice) is the occasion of the Mermaid Parade, a great festival to Neptune, the Roman god of the ocean. Revelers gather in Coney Island which is a famous beach by the Atlantic Ocean. Artists, mummers, and lovers of the ocean dress as sea creatures, mermaids, and oceanic beings and parade down Surf Avenue before proceeding through Luna Park and to the beach. As a Brooklynite, I thought I should likewise celebrate Neptune and the glorious beginning of summer—which I am doing by showing one of my paintings. The title of this work is “King Cake” and everything you see is some sort of king. There is King Neptune, a king salmon, the king of herring, a king vulture, and a princely crown. The colorful torus-shaped cake is known as a king cake, which is eaten down south during carnival season. When the cake is consumed, the person who receives the piece with the baby baked inside is given a golden coin…or maybe sacrificed to the ancient gods (depending on one’s denomination and traditions). Carnival and Mardi Gras are not celebrated in Brooklyn: instead we have the mermaid parade on the summer solstice! Hail Poseidon! Hail summer!

Antique French "Poisson d'Avril" card

Antique French “Poisson d’Avril” card

It’s April Fools’ Day! Although rampant pranks, tomfoolery, and hijinks can make navigating the internet (and the world beyond) a bit treacherous, today is also a special day for Ferrebeekeeper. Four years ago this blog started out on April 1, 2010. Thanks again to all of our readers for your support and comments! No fooling! My readers are the best!

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I feel conflicted about April Fools’ Day as currently celebrated in the English and Scandinavian world. The news becomes somewhat useless today–as any story could be a fabrication. The real sadness is the actual news becomes suspect. Ebola epidemic, live artillery exchange between North and South Korea, and mudslides are hardly laughing matters (although anything involving our political leadership might be a different matter).

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The French have a much nicer celebration of April Fools’ which is known as Poisson d’Avril (literally “fish of April”). In France, pranksters try to surreptitiously affix colorful paper fish to the backs of various friends, family, and colleagues. The day also has a more child-friendly aspect, as grade-school children make colorful craft fishes (either for pranks, or for display). Additionally, delicious confectionary fish are a happy addition to the informal holiday. Some folklore experts believe that the fish tradition was started due to a disconnection between the new year as celebrated by sophisticated courtiers and burghers (on January 1st) versus the beginning of the agricultural year in April–which played a bigger role in the life of more provincial folk. Other academics speculate that the holiday is even more literal and celebrated the hatching of naïve young fish which could be easily caught and consumed!

Kindly pretend I sent one of these to each of my readers!

Kindly pretend I sent one of these to each of my readers!

Of course the true roots of April Fools’ Day go back much further into the depths of history. The Romans had a holiday named Hilaria which was observed on the vernal equinox in veneration of Cybele, the great mother goddess. The Indians celebrate Holi, a spring festival of colors, intoxication, and fun. Perhaps the most ancient spring prank holidays involve ancient Persia. Purim, a Jewish spring holiday, commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Persian hegemony. The day is celebrated by contemporary Jews with masquerading and comic dramatizations. The ancient Persians themselves had a sacred spring holiday, Sizdah Bedar, which celebrated humankind’s connection with nature through games, feasts, and communion with the forest and country.

If I say "Happy Persian Spring!" will I be censored by the mullahs?

If I say “Happy Persian Spring!” will I be censored by the mullahs?

It is this last holiday which encapsulates my true feelings. Winter’s dreadful desolation is finally passing and new life and hope are on the way (irrespective of pranks or paper fish). To quote The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a strange but evocative Victorian translation of medieval Persian verse:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Illustrations to the Rubaiyat (Edmund Dulac)

Illustrations to the Rubaiyat (Edmund Dulac)

 

The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history.  Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general).  Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil.  Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse?  Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro?  Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future.  But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past.  The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules).  Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics.  The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.

On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars.  As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity.  The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit].  The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing.  The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory.  The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday.  The event was very popular with the public and the press.

There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798.  The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason.  Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports.  However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games.  As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy.  The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe.  As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.

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Different pictures of grave side devotions which characterize the Qingming festival

Happy Tomb Sweeping Day!  The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.

As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead.  Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.

In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons.  People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.

Qingming kite making in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

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