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Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr by See Reeves

Only 15 species of Eucalyptus trees occur naturally outside of Australia and of these 15 only Eucalyptus deglupta made it to the northern hemisphere without human help.  Eucalyptus deglupta is native to the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree grows rapidly to 75 meters in height (about 250 feet) which makes it one of the world’s giants.  Sometimes it becomes so large that it grows 3-4 meter tall buttresses to help it support itself.  Because of its rapid growth, large size, and medium-strength, slightly lustrous wood, these eucalyptus trees are grown commercially in huge monoculture plantations for pulping into paper.

 

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/amelia525/303048913/) by *amelia*

The most remarkable aspect of this huge useful tree is its remarkable bark color.  The tree sheds long strips of bark throughout the year which exposes greenish yellow inner bark.  The exposed stripes of green then change color to orange, purple, red, maroon, and dark green.  Since the tree is constantly shedding narrow strips of bark its trunk becomes dazzling vertically striped rainbow of lovely colors.  In wet tropical gardens around the world the Eucalyptus deglupta is grown as an ornamental highlight both because of its beautiful color and impressive size.

Close-up of Eucalyptus deglupta

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in Nunavut,Canada (photo by Mark Carwardine)

Today we feature one of everyone’s favorite animals–the great toothwalkers of the northern oceans, the mighty walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).  Adult Pacific male walruses can weigh more than 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) and grow to lengths exceeding 13 feet.  The huge pinnipeds live in vast colonies ringed around the Arctic Ocean.  Females separate themselves from the fractious males in order to protect their calves from the squabbling and dueling of the bulls.  The tusks (which can grow to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length) are also used by both genders to leverage their great weight out of the water—hence the name “toothwalker.” The word walrus comes from the Old Norse word “hrossvalr” which means horsewhale.

(photo by Max Smith)

The distinctive face of the walrus is a mass of large coarse bristles properly known as vibrissae.  Like the barbells of a catfish, these vibrissae are extremely sensitive tactile organs which help the walrus find shellfish on the dark and turbid ocean bottom.  Walruses are capable of diving deep to find the invertebrates they like to eat.  Scientists have recorded dives of 113 meters (371 feet) which lasted for about 25 minutes.  Once the walruses have located a food source to their liking, they dislodge their prey with jets of water and then suction up the creatures.  Apparently they are most partial to bivalve mollusks, snails, sea cucumbers, and crabs, but in extreme circumstances they can hunt large fish or even smaller seals.

Walruses can sleep in the water, their heads supported by an inflatable pouch which allows them to bob comfortably in the choppy near-freezing water.  Additionally they change color with the temperature—their surface skin can be pink, as blood rushes near to the surface when they are hot, or they can turn grey brown when cold.

Walrus colony. Source (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

All pinnipeds, including walruses, are in the order Carnivora where they seem to most closely share a common ancestor with bears back in the Oligocene. Walruses are the only species in the only genus of the family Odobenidae.  Once the Odobenidae were a sprawling family with at least twenty species spread across three several subfamilies (the Imagotariinae, Dusignathinae and Odobeninae), but something went wrong and walruses are all that’s left of the saber-toothed seals.

Polar bear attacking walruses (from the BBC's series "Planet Earth")

Walruses’ only natural predators are polar bears and killer whales, but even the world’s largest land predator and the most formidable ocean predator find adult walruses intimidating.  Except in extraordinary circumstances the huge predators only hunt calves or weakened walruses. Predictably, humans are the walruses’ main problem.  In the 18th, 19th, and 20th century immense numbers of walruses were killed for blubber, skin, meat, and ivory.  Today this commercial exploitation has ended and worldwide populations have rebounded somewhat–though certain geographic areas remain depopulated.

Perhaps because they move ponderously on land and because their whiskers suggest comic uncles, some people underestimate walruses. I have been fortunate enough to see a young adult walrus in captivity (he was orphaned as a pup and would have died if not taken in by an aquarium) and it is a mistake to underestimate these animals.  The walrus (whose name was Ayveq) was as large as a midsized truck, yet he could move with shark-like speed but ballet-like grace in the water.  Bull walruses come into maturity at the age of 7, but they don’t usually get to mate with cows until they are 15 or so and have bested many competitors in savage sword duels with their tusks. Ayveq had access to a harem of walrus cows from a much younger age, and his comic attempts to understand himself and his relation to the females was a source of much surprised astonishment among aquarium-goers.  As a peripheral point, I neglected to mention that male walruses have a uniquely large baculum which can measure up to 63 cm (25 inches)—larger than that of any other land mammal.  The apparatus supported by this bone is similarly oversized.

A tame picture of Ayveq the Walrus (he liked to mush his face against the glass)

Ayveq could produce a remarkable series of shrieks, grunts, whistles, bellows—apparently communication is important in the teaming masses of walrus colonies. Whether drinking herring through a straw, mugging for a crowd, or using his back flippers to amuse himself, Ayveq was always remarkable. His death saddened me considerably and I could not write about walruses without mentioning his extravagant personality.  Knowing Ayveq also left me convinced that walruses might be perverts but they are also highly intelligent and gregarious beings.  This conviction is born out by the painstaking work of biologists and zoologists who are just beginning to recognize how complicated walrus society is.  It is no wonder, that so many poets, artists, and musicians have referenced the remarkable tusked creatures.

The Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney)

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

The Crucifixion (Rogier Van der Weyden, ca. 1445, oil on panel)

Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464).  The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training.  We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.

Detail of Right Panel

Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism.  The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses.  The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle.  Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels.  The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies.  To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”

Detail of Mary Magdalen

The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette.  The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors.  Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different.  Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.

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