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It is blossom season in New York! Instead of writing blogs about mollusks, gothic art, and politics, I have been looking at flowers and trees. The cherry tree at the top of the post is down by the Manhattan Court House (as you can hopefully tell by the World Trade Center/Freedom Tower/Whatever-it-is-called-now), but the rest of the images are from my garden in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the garden is a Kwanzan flowering cherry which usually blooms for a fortnight (although, thanks to the cold snap, it seemed more like 6 days this year). I have blogged about the cherry blossoms at length in years past, yet, every year I am struck anew by the beauty and evanescence of the pink blooms.

Here are the blossoms in my back yard (my roommate added those plastic flamingos, by the way). Speaking of other gardeners who change things around in the flower garden…here is another character who lives in the neighborhood who cannot keep his paws off of the blossoms. Every day during tulip season he beheads a couple of tulips to see if they are good to eat. When he realizes they are not squirrel food, he tosses them down. Sigh…

Below is a patch of pastel pink tulips. You can see one of the beheaded stems at far left.

These white tulips are known as “Pays Bas” and I think they came out particularly lovely! This year, in addition to the cherry tree, the old ornamental crabapple also blossomed (which is a rarity). You can see the darker pink blossoms in the foreground in the picture immediately below.

I am going to see if I can draw/photograph/capture some more of the garden’s spring charms for you (it never looks right on the computer screen), but for now I am going to go back out and enjoy the showers of falling petals…

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Dare I say it, but it felt a little bit like…spring…out there today in New York (at least the parts that weren’t covered in huge sheets of discolored slush). Sadly the ice sheets still cover all of my shade garden and flower posts from the back yard will have to wait until spring actually gets here, but looking at the internet I see that some flowers are popping up in the corners of other people’s gardens. The one above is Eranthis hyemalis (winter-aconite), a member of the buttercup family originally native to France, Italy and the Balkans but now widely naturalized across Europe and the East Coast.

There isn’t really a larger point or story to this post. I am just pleased that the flowers are coming back (even if we are talking about the earliest, earliest, earliest flowers of the season). Like all of the ranunculales, the winter aconite is quite poisonous from the tip of its anther to the bottom its root (so don’t go around the snow banks shoveling them into your mouth, I guess). We will get to those promised ideas for improving global society in soon-to-follow posts (😊) and I suspect we will start seeing some more spring flowers too!

Looking West on 42nd Street, NYC

Happy February! The shortest yet longest month kicks off today with a vast nor’easter blanketing new York City in snow. Although it is rather unpleasant to navigate the mountainous drifts and hidden rivers of slush, snowstorms aesthetically suit the city. The translucency of the snow (which grows more opaque with distance) makes evident how enormous the skyscrapers of Manhattan are. Additionally, the monochromatic winter hues suit the austere grays and blacks of New York.

Grand Central with some mysterious new monster building behind it

All of this is a long way of saying I took some candid pictures of 42nd Street with my cellphone today and I am posting them instead of a thoughtful essay. Perhaps the famous place I work can do some of the heavy lifting today instead of me.

Grand Central from my office window

Look at how pretty Grand Central and the Chrysler building are! If we are not going to build giant teapots and huge pairs of pants, can we at least go back to building giant buildings like that please? I am sorry I cut off the statue of Mercury of the Grand Central picture directly above. Maybe I will try again when there is not a giant cloud of snow blowing into me! In the mean time be safe. We will get through this winter some day. If past posts are to be believed, it is only a month until the hellebores start budding (and you had better believe I planted some spring tulips which are sleeping beneath the mountains of white).

The Chrysler Building in the snow

One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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This summer I have spent a great deal of time in the garden which has been my refuge from the plague, turmoil, and strife.  I keep hoping that the carpenter bees will return, but I have barely seen any hymenopterans at all thus far (aside from little black and brown ants which seem to be as numerous as ever).  That all changed the other day, though, when a magnificent visitor swept into the garden!  A lot of hymenoptera are strikingly colored (as the velvet ants will testify) , however this dapper character looked like a refugee from a 1980s musical video or a disturbing anime.  Not only was this wasp’s jet fighter body the deepest brown (which was so dark it might have been black), but all four of its wings were the same color too! Not only was the whole creature sable, but its dark brown coloring was also iridescent blue/purple–so it gleamed like a blue revolver.  There was one noteworthy contrasting color on the wasp’s face– its huge antennae were fluorescent orange!

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Although the wasp seemed like it was preening on my hostas, as soon as I moved to get my camera it was gone.  So, alas, I have no photos of the strange visitor.  Fortunately though, this wasp was more visually unique than a Dick Tracy villain so I quickly found a match in the rogue’s gallery of wasps online: Gnamptopelta obsidianator, the “bent-shield beseiger wasp”

Now you would think that if crazy creatures like this were flying all over New York City, there would be plenty of information about them online, but you would be wrong.  It speaks of our human myopia that, although I easily found pictures of it, I could barely find out anything about the lifestyle of the beseiger (although one website opined that I had actually seen the lookalike wasp Thyreodon atricolor–so keep that in mind, for what it is worth). According to the internet, these wasps are both ichneumonids– parasitoid predators which lays eggs inside living hosts.  Paralyzed, the hosts still-living flesh provides a decay-resistant larger for the wasp larvae [shudders].

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Whatever you might think about the terrible things this wasp does to make ends meet, there is no denying that it belongs here just for its sheer fashion sensibility alone.  I will keep my eyes peeled for more of these magnificent yet troubling wasps–both in the garden and online.  I still can’t believe we know so little about creatures which literally live right next to us!

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Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

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As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

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In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

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The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

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That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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OK, I acknowledge that the last few posts have been a trifle thin.  I promise that I will write a real post about a real subject this week (plus it is still poetry month, and also maybe we can showcase some thrilling flounder art!), however for now I am going to showcase some weird found art (?) from the Brooklyn subway.  I was rushing through my desperate morning commute last week when I saw this amazing advertisement…across the tracks on the opposite platform.  The dominant image–a bright eyed pigeon with a melting popsicle immediately grabbed my attention, but I couldn’t read the infinitesimal copy beneath..and the electrified rails (not to mention the 2 and 5 trains going both ways) stood between me and understanding.  I resolved to look it up on the way home, but every day when I trudged home from my dayjob, broken and lost, I forgot all about it.

Only this week, when I was coming home did I remember to look for the poster, and it was nowhere to be found.  Was it papered over with then next iteration of disposable consumer culture?  And where were the posters next to it?  Suddenly it hit me that I go to work in the last car of the subway and go home in the last car of the subway: I stand at different points ends of the platform in the day and the night and have for years without noticing.  So, I walked to the front (back?) of the station where I found the poster and took a real  photo.  It is advertises life in the city–more specifically a life in the arts (courtesy of New York’s School of Visual Arts).  Look at how alert and happy that pigeon is!  I think he might be enjoying the glorious Fourth of July (which still seems like a dream during this cold, dank April).  i am not sure if the pigeon is really an artist (an expressionist maybe) or just enjoying a patriotic frozen treat.

pigeon with a popsicle

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