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As our civilization swiftly declines due to incompetent leadership, exploitative economic practices, and overuse of natural resources, it is worth looking back through history at some of North America’s other societies to see how they solved the problems of food, housing, and defense.  Most complex civilizations rely on a base of agriculture in order to assure a food supply for their population (and agricultural concerns then become enshrined in society’s fundamental compacts–as in feudalism or slave-based latifundias or what have you), yet some civilizations have formed in locations so rich in natural resources that urban societies can be built without agriculture. Such is the case with the Calusa civilization of southern Florida, AKA “the shell people.”

Calusa society was built upon a single animal…literally!  The fisher-folk constructed enormous artificial islands (and other aquatic structures) out of oyster shells.  These edifices were built over generations out of hundreds of millions of individual shells.  The greatest artificial islands seem to date from around 1300 and 1400 A.D.  The Spanish wrote compelling descriptions of the Calusa capital at Mound Key, where the Calusa chief (or king?) had a ceremonial palace/keep capable of holding 2000 people which was built atop a massive man-made island which loomed ten meters above sea level.

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From their capital, the warlike Calusa ranged north to what is now Tampa, east to Lake Okeechobee, and south through their heartland in the keys down to the thousand islands.  The Calusa people were impressive traders who obtained goods through vast extended trade circles and apparently they were even more noteworthy warriors (“Calusa” means fierce). Yet what is most striking to modern researchers is that they were apparently pioneers of aquiculture.  Some of the great constructions made of oyster shells seem to have been water corrals, where schools of fish were driven to be stored live for later consumption.  The largest watercourts were several times the size of an NBA basketball court and were probably used to hold schools of mullet, pinfish and herring.

The estuarine fisheries of the Calusa seem to have been robust (witness how many oysters they harvested!) and they successfully withstood Spanish hegemony for 200 years, yet disease and colonial wars took a heavy toll and the society was conquered by Creek and Yamasee raiders early in the 18th century.  Shortly afterwards the Spanish Empire ceded its Florida lands to Great Britain and the British forcibly evacuated the last remnants of the tribe to Cuba.

 

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So…hey…what ever happened to that attempt to repopulate Jamaica Bay with lovable good-hearted, filter-feedin’ oysters? Ummm…well…it turns out that the colony failed.  The poor oysters who made it to adulthood were unable to procreate (or, at least, their offspring were not able to attach to anything in Jamaica Bay).  Fortunately, the oysters’ human friends are not licked yet and have a whole new weird project afoot…but before we get to that, let’s turn back the clock and look at the bigger picture of oysters in our area!

New York was once renowned for its oysters.  By some estimates, up through the 1600s every other oyster in the world lived in New York’s harbors and bays!  During the early 19th century, every other oyster harvested in the world was certainly taken from these waters.  The oysters filtered the entire bay of algae, microbes, and pollutants.  They also prevented the harbor from eroding away—it was like the entire waterway was coated with hard calcium carbonate (in fact it was exactly like that).   Not only did the tough New York oysters prevent underwater erosion, they also stabilized the coastline and bore the brunt of storm surges.  What tremendous mollusks! But alas, we were too hungry and too greedy and too careless…. By the end of the 1800s the population had crashed.  Attempts to revive the poor oysters have consistently failed. (just follow that link up at the top).

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However ecologists, oceanographers, and oyster fanciers have not quit trying.  In fact with the aid of a variety of partners they are mounting the biggest attempt yet to restore Oysters to New York City’s bays and waterways. The New York Times details the agencies which have invested in the project:

The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the United States Interior Department’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.

It is good to have money (I have heard), however, there is also a secret ingredient to this project.  New York’s education department has been replacing all of the NY Public School’s bathroom fixtures with environmentally efficient toilets.  The old porcelain toilets are being smashed to bits to form an artificial reef where the young oysters can get started.  Five thousand public school toilets have been broken up and added to the project.  These fixtures have served generations of New York’s humans in a necessary albeit lowly capacity.  Let us hope they can get a couple of generations of oysters up and going in their second career (as smashed detritus on the bottom of Jamaica Bay)!  We’ll report more as we know more so stay tuned.

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Please Don't Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Please Don’t Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop).  Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors.  From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer.  Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels.   However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains.  Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)oil on panel

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)
oil on panel

 

 

I had a post all planned for today but the difference between reality and fancy has forced me to scrap my original idea.  First, and by way of overall explanation, allow me to apologize for not writing a post last Friday.  I was attending a stamp convention in Baltimore over Labor Day weekend in order to fulfill a social obligation.  The stamp convention is where my idea for today’s post came from and, of course it’s also where my idea went wrong.

I had initially (optimistically) planned on selecting a variety of stamps representing categories from my blog.  What could be better than a bunch of tiny beautiful pictures of snakes, underworld gods, furry mammals, planetary probes, gothic cathedrals, and so forth? But, alas, my concept was flawed.  The international postal industry is vast beyond the telling, and, undoubtedly, some nation on Earth has issued stamps featuring each of those subjects, however stamp collectors do not categorize their collections by subject. Instead they organize their precious stamps by pure obsession (usually but not always centered around a particular historical milieu).  Apparently there are also subject stamp collectors out there…but real stamp collectors think of them the way that champion yachtsmen regard oafs on jet skis.

True philatelists are more interested in finding oddities which grow out of historical happenstance.  Their great delights are the last stamps issued by an occupied country just before regime change, or the few stamps issued with the sultan’s head upside down, or a stamp canceled by a Turkmenistan post office which was destroyed a week after it was built.  The nuances associated with such a subtle field quickly overwhelmed me. Additionally, I was unable to approach gray-haired gentlemen in waistcoats who were shivering in delight from looking at what appeared to be identical stamps with identical potentates and ask if there were any stamps with cuttlefish. It seemed blasphemous. I ended up leaving the stamp show without any stamps at all!

But don’t be afraid. There is an entity which is even more obsessive than the stamp dealers: the internet!  To add to my previous post on catfish stamps here is a gallery of mollusk stamps which I found online.  The beautiful swirls and dots and stripes of this handful of snails, octopuses, slugs, and bivalves should quickly convince you that even the world’s post offices have nothing on nature when it comes to turning out endless different designs.


Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

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