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“Glove” (Wolf Silveri, ca. 2019) Photograph

As a known fish-themed artist, I like to keep an eye on what the world’s other fish-artists are up to (these are artists who draw/paint/sculpt fish…not artists who are fish).  A couple of day’s ago, the Washington Post ran a little miniature show of works by the photographer Wolf Silveri, who became fascinated by the melancholic seafood on display at the marketplace while he was buying dinner.  Silveri read that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans within the next few decades and he wanted to create a disturbing series of unnatural hybrids to reflect this unnatural state of affairs.

Fish are the center of my art right now (albeit in an extremely different way) and I have a history of making works out of garbage too, so I am deeply intrigued by Silveri’s compositions.  Yet I am also less than perfectly happy: these poor sea creatures seem more like sad props than like complex protagonists (as opposed to certain flatfish I could name).  Also the works seem less surreal than slapdash–but maybe that is a hazard of the photographer’s super-realistic medium (although the show’s title “We’ll Sea” also seems a bit facile).  Anyway, it is unsurprising for an artist to carp about a more successful artist, so I could be giving these pictures less credit than they deserve.  Above all, anything that makes people passionate about the tragedy overtaking our oceans is worthwhile.

Let me know what you think.  I am going to go work on some flounder art!

The tree in front of my house right now (you’ll have to imagine the roaring)

Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street.  The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo.  This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses.  The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.

A London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) at Vassar College

For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.”  I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores.   Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives.  The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.

The trees really are beautiful.  Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes.  The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.

London plane trees at Union Square Park (NYC)

Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city.  Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.

Support NYC Parks!

The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace.  The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds.  The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree.  I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).

Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms.  Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen.  The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display.  However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms.  Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!).  It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”

A Red Horse Chestnut Tree (Aseculus x carnea) in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides.  In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree.  It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.

A Horse Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring.  In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored.  Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German).  It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful.  The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.

The Bavarian Beergarden (Otto Piltz, 1875)

Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now.  I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring.  It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen).   It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.

Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!

(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)

Flowers of the Red Horsechestnut Tree

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

Yesterday’s post concerning Pluto, Greco-Roman lord of the underworld contained a photograph of a beautiful two-thousand year old statue as well as one of the greatest and most harrowing of classical myths–but I am afraid it incorrectly tinted my recent trip to California with somber shades.  So today I have decided to describe the roses from the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino (just outside Pasadena).  This garden was once the home of a railroad baron who grabbed control of the steel rails which tied California together.  He was a rare book collector (which I will get back to on Monday) and a lover of gardens.

A Tiny Portion of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Gardens

All of the gardens at the Huntington were unreasonably lovely.  The grounds contained both a large Japanese garden and a magnificent Chinese garden.  I didn’t even get to see the world famous desert garden and I am still regretting it.  However the real highlight for me was the rose garden.  Pasadena styles itself as the city of roses. The city hosts a rose parade and some sort of huge rose bowl for college sportsmen.  There is a reason for all of the fanfare—the roses everywhere in Pasadena and the towns nearby were beautiful. But the roses at the Huntington Botanical Garden were ineffably transcendentally gorgeous.  It was the most splendid rose garden I have ever seen.

Some of the Roses at the Huntington Gardens

Here is the description of the garden as lifted wholesale from the Huntington website:

The three and a half acre rose garden was designed by Myron Hunt and first planted by William Hertrich as a display garden in 1908. In the 1970s, the garden was reorganized as a “collection garden” with more than 1,200 cultivars (approx 4,000 individual plants) arranged historically to trace the development of roses from ancient to modern times beginning with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

The entrance pathway leads to an 18th-century French stone tempietto and statue, “Love, the Captive of Youth,” encircled by “French Lace” roses. The beds north of the arbor next to the Shakespeare Garden have a paved walk, and feature Tea and China roses and their descendants, first introduced into Europe from China around 1900.

On the south side of the rose arbor are nineteenth-century shrub roses, descended from old European varieties. Climbing and rambling roses—from all periods and groups—grow on the arbors, arches, and pergolas.

The central part of the garden contains Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Polyanthas, and miniatures, with separate beds for classic pre-1920 hybrid teas and for roses from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Other beds feature roses introduced since the 1950s and introductions from abroad, including recent plantings of roses from India.

This somewhat dry text indeed explains the basics of the garden, but, alas, there is a terrible frustration in trying to convey the true nature of such a place.  The roses were all perfect.  Each blossom was the size of a dinner plate and every rose was blooming.  By some magical circumstance we visited the garden at peak season.  The heady scent of roses wafted on the warm breeze and time seemed to dilate. Yesterday I wrote about the mythical gardens of the underworld.  Today I am writing about the gardens of paradise—which, somewhat surprisingly, are real and are located just to the southwest of Pasadena.

The Temple of Love from the Rose Garden at Huntington Gardens

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