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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

It is 11:00 PM on Friday night after a long week and I have no blog post written.  You know what that means! It’s time to take out my little book and post some of the frivolous sketches which I do on the train or at lunch.  Since it is October and we are approaching the scary Halloween feature week, I have been doing some creepy otherworldly little drawings.  Above is a nighttime laboratory with two mad scientists hard at work doing some transgenic modifications to various organisms.  Ethereal spirit people drift by outside beneath the cold stars and various beasts and plants inhabit the spaces of the Gothic room not taken up by weird lab apparati.   The seated scientist bears a striking resemblance to a particular Abrahamic deity, but perhaps he is just playing god (not that there is anything wrong with that).  Only when I was done with the picture did I realize that the second scientist bears a striking resemblance to Rick from Rick and Morty (do you watch The Adventures of Rick and Morty? You should!).

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

In the second drawing, a little glowing man in a hyperbaric pod lands on a strange world as a many limbed beast cavorts atop his craft.  The fronds of the creature’s vegetative back are a refuge for tiny green elf-like beings.  A pulpy red sphere with a green top in the foreground may be a tomato…or a larval version of the creature.  There is really nothing more to say about this image.

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Leopard attacked by a Snake (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River.   He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery.  Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning.  Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years).  He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation.  During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle.  He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).

The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans).  His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones .  Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces.  The colors and patterns themselves are at war.  Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat.  The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered.   The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.

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Self Portrait (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes.  Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well.  Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.

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