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Since I was a child, I have loved the Olympics, but a lot has changed in the world since the black-and-white moral conflict of the cold war (and a lot has changed for me since I was a child living in blood-red rural America). As one of the few venues where the nations of the Earth convene, the Olympics gives us a god’s eye view of the international order (albeit through the darkened lens of corporate sponsorship and whatever NBC thinks will appeal to the most American viewers). As the games proceed we can talk about some of what we are viewing. For example, I think the Tokyo Olympics will illustrate how America’s ongoing political crisis is leading to precipitous national decline even more starkly than say the manifold failures of our navy or the savage buffoonery of our national legislature. But we will see! The games have yet to be played and there are always surprises. First let’s talk about the opening ceremony.

One of the ways the Olympics outshine quotidian sports contests is by throwing little tidbits to other disciplines like fashion, music, technology, art, and dance. The original Olympics had medals for music, literature, and the arts, and, although such cultural contests have been subsumed by the dictates of modern broadcasting, elements remain within the pageantry and protocol of the games. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening ceremony–which certainly showcased Japan’s continuing expertise at robotics (and also featured some delightfully preposterous dance routines). However the real spectacle worth watching is the parade of nations! We get to see almost all of the other nations of Earth and a sample of how they dress for fancy occasions, not to mention a prime lineup of extremely fit human beings of all shapes and varieties.

Ghana’s flag bearer, Nadia Eke

It was wonderful, like it always is. Also, after a year or more of watching anxious and sick people on TV, the athletes looked particularly happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but my heart soared with delight seeing that flag holder from Ghana dance into the stadium with such graceful & proud bearing.

And there was so much more! There were Bermudans in Bermuda shorts! There were magnificent gleaming Hercules chests (these days, Tonga is not the only nation headlined by a magnificent oiled muscleman!)

Who wore it butter?

There were jewels and gold from the Persian Gulf.

I really liked the style of the bejeweled Bahraini athletes!
The Hungarians themselves look great, though

Of course there were also fashion choices which failed to “stick the landing” too. Hungary is an amazing country but their outfits made them look like the title sequence of the gory film I watched in driver’s ed! Maybe let’s try to avoid red spatters in future costumes.

Sartorial magnificence of every flavor was on display. However to my eyes, the most beautiful costumes belonged to the athletes from…Benin? Their regal embroidered tunics and dresses of royal blue featured fluorescent pink and aqua floral icons. These matched their magnificent satin hats (of name unknown to me). I wasn’t expecting the word’s 163rd wealthiest nation to win the international fashion contest (in fact half of my favorite things from my notes are from nations on the Gulf of Guinea!), but like I said, half of the delight of the Olympics comes from joyful surprises.

America’s outfits were fine, I suppose, but the dark navy blue on top of dark denim read as almost black. Also, I always worry that our nation mistakes casual comfort for elegance, which is to say I thought we maybe looked a bit like lazy villains (which suits the past four years, I guess).

Anyway, the opening parade is over and we can get back showing off in venue which primatologists (or bio-scientists of any stripe) will instantly recognize: physical competition. But before we get too competitive I hope we hold onto a bit of the international amity and open delight in the appearance and actions of foreigners which characterized the opening ceremony. Something tells me we are going to need to love each other a lot more if we are going to survive what is coming (much less make it through to a glowing future of thriving forests, healthy oceans, joyful children, and giant space arks). But somewhere in that Olympics parade there are always things that make me think that such a world is at least possible.

Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood" (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

Study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”).  Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole.  This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)

This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river.  What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.

Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy.  This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.

Detail from "The Voyage of Life Childhood" (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Detail from “The Voyage of Life Childhood” (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Forsythia

Forsythia

Spring, spring, spring! Today is the first day that has actually felt like spring. Soon the forsythias will be up and then, suddenly all sorts of spring blossoms will appear in a riot of beautiful color. Forsythias are such a familiar blossoming shrubs that I have never thought to find out where they are from, and how they got here. The instantly familiar yellow flowers grow on long whiplike shoots and appear everywhere in early spring. They are the introductory notes from which the rest of the symphony swells (and yet they are always there beneath the rest of the music). Wasn’t it always that way?

Forsythia in a formal garden

Forsythia in a formal garden

Actually, forsythias are native to East Asia. Out of eleven wild species, only one obscure species had spread from Asia to southeastern Europe prior to the age of exploration. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that western gardeners and botanists found out about them as traders and diplomats visited the great gardens of China, Korea, and Japan.

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Forsythias are extremely easy to cultivate from cuttings. Low hanging boughs frequently already have rootlets. Europeans wasted no time in bringing the lovely yellow shrubs back home where they fed the public’s insatiable appetite for novelty. Indeed they were part of the 18th century Chinoiserie fad, which also gave us the monstrous invasive tree of heaven [spits on ground and curses]. Soon forsythias were in temperate gardens everywhere. They are coincidentally named for William Forsyth (1737–1804), a Scottish botanist who was the king’s head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Ironically, despite the fact that forsythias have been omnipresent in American and European gardens since the late eighteenth century, they have not permeated very far into western culture. They are a beautiful shrub which is everywhere, but they do not have the same mythical and herbal associations for us as myrtles, redbuds, crocuses or such. Of course forsythias do have such associations in China, Korea, and Japan. They are one of the fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine and their sticks are used to manufacture a classical Korean stringed instrument. The myths and art of East Asia likewise favor the beautiful golden shrubs. The flower exemplify nature’s promise of rebirth.

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One of my personal all-time favorite moments with flora and fauna involved forsythia…and my favorite animal—the mighty elephant. I was at the Bronx Zoo in early spring and their (then) adolescent female Asian elephant was outside appreciating the first nice day. Elephants eat lots of vegetation of all sorts and a thoughtful zookeeper had put a bunch of flowering forsythia fronds in the enclosure as a treat.

Elephants are arguably the most intelligent land animals except for certain problematic primates. They love to play and show off. The little elephant grabbed the beautiful yellow forsythias in her trunk and ran back and forth holding them aloft like a girl with a bouquet. Then, in a moment of pure exuberance, she threw them all high up in the air and raced back and forth in the resultant shower of bright yellow blossoms.

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Since she was such a young elephant, she was still covered with fine downy hairs and the forsythia flowers got all caught up in these. So she became dotted with little golden flowers. She was beaming in delight and had one of the happiest expressions I have ever seen on anyone. The memory is enshrined in my heart as an enduring exemplar of joy.  Although the internet had plenty of other sorts of images, I couldn’t find any happy elephants with forsythias–so I sketched one for you just now above,

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