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Today (February 5th) is “National Wear Red Day” yet another phlegmatic pseudo-holiday in the short-yet-ever-so-long month of February. However there is a great fundamental truth buried in National Wear Red Day. Aside from working out day and night or becoming a multi-millionaire celebrity, wearing red is one of the few things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential mates (I am just assuming that you are a classical human being–if you are a futuristic cyborg, or an alien lifeform, or a super-intelligent animal of some other sort, please, please, please leave a comment, even if its a thousand years from when I write this).

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I am somewhat foreshadowing next week’s theme, but primates are the most colorful mammals. For monkeys and apes and hominids, colors carry all sorts of highly-charged hierarchical, social, and physiological messages. At a conscious level, we may be only dimly aware of these signifiers, but they apparently come through loud and clear to our endocrine systems. Administrators at dating sites report a 6% boost of positive replies to people wearing red in their profile pictures. Scientists and psychologists have found similar results in experiments which query men and women about the attractiveness of photographs of people of the opposite gender.

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The power of wearing red extends beyond the bedroom to the business and sports realms. Teams that have red uniforms have been demonstrated to have greater likelihood of victory (although I shudder to imagine how statisticians figured that out). The power of the not-very-imaginatively-named “power tie” is well known (at least anecdotally). Even in battle, red seems to have once conferred an advantage. The troops of great empires have had a way of wearing red garb (although, admittedly, advances in gunnery and tactics seem to have greatly negated–or reversed this trend). The Roman legions wore red. The British redcoats uh, wore red. The Chinese super-lucky national color is red. Kelly Lebrock wore red. So ignore how stupid it sounds. Shrug off your inhibitions (and your national reticence to take orders from a day of the month) and wear red.

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Unless You are Steve Seagal

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Pōhutukawa trees in bloom at Christmas time

Around the world the Christmas season is celebrated with conifer trees–symbol of undying life in the winter darkness….except…in some places Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer! Some places don’t have pine trees.  This introduction takes us wayyyyy down south to the New Zealand archipelago, home of the pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) “The New Zealand Christmas tree.”

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Sort of “Gilding the Lily” but more so

‏Pōhutukawa trees‏ are indeed evergreens (of the myrtle family) but they are not pine trees…or conifers at all.  These hardy coastal trees are known for tenaciously clinging to sea cliffs, but, above all, they are known for brilliant displays of exquisitely colorful flowers.  The blossoms, which are composed of huge spiky masses of colorful stamens, peak just as summer begins—the end of December.   Some flowers are yellow, pink, white, or orange, but the most characteristic specimens have blooms of brilliant red.

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The trees are native to the northern island. Ancient specimens can grow to be 25 meters in height (about 83 feet) and they are wider than they are tall, but invasive animals and agricultural deforestation have reduced the great forests to a spectral shadow of their former glory.  The hungry brushtail possum is a particular menace to the tree since the marsupial invader strips it of all its leaves. Nineteenth century mariners were guilty as well—the tough arching boughs of the tree were ideally suited for building and repairing beams of wooden ships.

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Gasp! Bad Possum! Bad Possum!

Fortunately New Zealanders love the magnificent trees and plant them everywhere.  There are numerous cultivars growing in gardens throughout the lovely islands.  The trees are sometimes decorated at Christmas just like more familiar Christmas trees.  Devoted pōhutukawa conservationists are working to restore the forests. Additionally the trees are not without their own toughness. They are one of the most efficient plants at colonizing naked lava rock where volcanoes have spewed out new lands.

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Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).

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Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

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Grapefruit is one of my favorite fruits.  Incongruously I associate the sweet semi-tropical fruit with the most bitter part of winter.  When I was growing up (on a hill farm in central Appalachia), we had crates of the big yellow citruses during winter–an annual gift from some unknown relative.  My mom would read long novels while the wind roared outside and we set by the wood stove listening.  If my father was home from the oil & gas fields, he would peel grapefruits for us (not that Dad was a roughneck, he was a geologist with poorly organized yet relentless employers).  In order for the fruit not to be bitter and tough it is necessary to peel it correctly, which requires patience and deft hands (not only must you strip off the rind, you also have to carefully pull the leathery endocarp away from the juice-filled vesicles). I didn’t master the fruit on my own until I was an adolescent.  As an aside, I feel like those evil serrated spoons are cheating…plus they don’t work.

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Grapefruit is a human creation—and a comparatively recent one at that.  It was first hybridized in Barbados during the 18th century from two very different ancestral citrus fruits–the giant pomelo from Southeast Asia and the Jamaican sweet orange (itself a hybrid fruit with ancient Asian antecedents). A Welsh clergyman, Rev. Griffith Hughes, first documented the tasty new hybrid in the 1750s.  Apparently it intrigued and scandalized the English planters (or maybe the Welsh cleric?) to such an extent that it was initially called “the forbidden fruit.”  I guess this earns the grapefruit a place with other fruits known as “the forbidden fruit” such as quinces, citrons, figs, apples, and datura (to say nothing of knowledge…or sensuality, or GMOs, or post-humans or other metaphorical forbidden fruit).

A beautiful grapefruit tree

A beautiful grapefruit tree

Grapefruit trees are shapely evergreen trees which grow to a height of 5–6 meters (16–20 feet).  They have beautiful but tiny four-petaled flowers which, when fertilized by bees (or other insects) grow into the large fruits.  The name grapefruit originates from the fact that growers thought the heavy clusters of ripe fruit looked like grapes (throughout much of the nineteenth century they were named “shaddocks” after an enigmatic & profligate ship captain who was evidently some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the high seas) .  The flesh of grapefruits can be white, yellow, pink, or red.  According to farming lore, pink and red grapefruits were of twentieth century origin—the famous “ruby red” grapefruit was patented in 1929.  The subsequent search for richer color lead growers to irradiate bud sticks with neutrons in the hope of creating exciting new mutants!

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues...

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues…

Grapefruits are healthy fruits filled with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and other possibly wholesome phytochemicals (to say nothing of fiber) however they also contain a chemical which inhibits the activity of a human metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4.  This not-very-euphonically named enzyme allows the liver and the intestine to break down drugs–so grapefruit are potentially dangerous to people taking certain prescription medicines.  According to pharmacologists, more than 40% of drugs can interact with grapefruit!  This sort of thing is why biochemistry is so interesting and challenging!  Maybe there is a rightful reason grapefruit should be called forbidden fruit…but until the doctor actively forbids it, I am going to go have some more…

Um, not THAT much more...

Um, not THAT much more…

 

 

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Drop everything!  Pantone (a private corporation which specializes in standardizing color palettes for different industries and companies) has announced the color of the year for 2015.  The special color for the new year is…Marsala, a deep dark red named after Marsala, the fortified Italian wine which in turn is named after the port of Marsala.  I guess I was really on top of trends when I blogged about burgundy a couple of weeks ago, since burgundy is a similar color with a similar provenance (although burgundy is a purer—and prettier– dark red which lacks the earthy brown notes of Marsala).

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According to Pantone’s fulsome press statement, Marsala is a perfect color for…well everything:  “Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal, while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness…This hearty, yet stylish tone is universally appealing and translates easily to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.”

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Other self-proclaimed culture-makers and arbiters of taste are less satisfied with the hue.  NYmag.com felt the tone evoked Olive Garden (a mid-range restaurant franchise which makes coastal elites shudder and drop their caviar spoons) and…um…feminine sanitary goods.  The Atlantic talked about fraternity bathrooms, 70’s institutional carpet, and mystery meat with plenty of offal mixed in.  Clearly Marsala inspires strong visceral feelings (ha) and synesthesia, even if it does not necessarily make everyone want a new Marsala Maserati.

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I was a big fan of last year’s color “radiant orchid” which was a lovely mid-tone pinkish purple (for the record, tastemakers liked radiant orchid too and thought it betokened “economic recovery”).  I think burgundy is prettier than Marsala (which I would probably call “brick”), but the 2015 color evokes garden paths, bound books, farm equipment, trilliums, and, yes, delicious chicken liver, so I like it well enough.  It seems like my family even had a Marsala-colored Chevy station wagon when I was growing up in the late seventies.  I doubt I will be buying an all Marsala wardrobe or a Marsala blender, but the color is very pretty…for some things.  And, as ever, if you despise Marsala (or if its Olive Garden notes cause the stock market to crash) there will be a completely new corporate-chosen color of the year in 2016.

You would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get...

As an aside, you would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get…

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The color burgundy is named after Burgundy, the famous red wine.  Burgundy, the famous red wine, is named after Burgundy a historical territory in eastern-central France.  Burgundy, the historical region of France, is named after the Burgundians, an ancient Norse people who allied with the Romans, back when the Roman Empire ruled Gaul.  The Burgundians, like the Goths, seem to have originated in Scandinavia in pre-history.  Whereas the Goths moved from Scandinavia to the Baltic island of Gottland (which means Goth Land), the original Burgundians apparently moved to the Baltic island of Bornholm (which means Burgundian Home).  From Bornholm, they become involved in the affairs of northern Europe first as raiders and mercenaries, then (as the Roman Empire blew apart) they became colonists and administrators. At least that is more-or-less what historians believe happened… During the Middle Ages Burgundians became divorced from their Scandinavian/Gothic roots and they have long been French (Burgundian nobles sometimes playing a big role in French history).

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy... (from sevenstarwheel)

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy… (from sevenstarwheel)

Irrespective of the origins of the name, the color burgundy is a gorgeous deep red hue entirely fitting for an ancient race of cutthroat warriors.  Burgundy is darker than cordovan and a truer red than oxblood or maroon.   It is the magnificent dark red of undiluted alizarin crimson.  Because it is such a vivid color, it tends to stand for sensuality, power, and violence.

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Despite this wildness and darkness (or maybe because of it), burgundy is a very popular color in fashion and beauty.  It was particularly en vogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was my then-girlfriend’s favorite color for lipstick and clothes.  I distinctly remember seeing it everywhere back then.   Today, the radiant sun of fashion does not shine quite so directly on burgundy, but it is still a popular color in sports, automobiles, and homegoods.   According to the internet, burgundy remains a favorite color for lipstick in the Goth subculture (i.e. among teenagers and young adults who enjoy melodramatic and fetishistic costumes). So burgundy has made a full circle from the Goths of Roman times to the Goths of today.

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il_340x270.521166662_98j8The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories:  yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd.  It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Carnelian

Carnelian

Carnelian is a deep reddish brown semi-precious stone.  It is a variety of chalcedony (which is itself an intermixture of the silicaceous minerals quartz and morganite—with a dash of iron compounds for color).  Carnelian has been popular since the dawn of civilization for jewelry and for manufacturing objects such as beads, seals and signet rings.  Here is a headdress from the tomb of the three queens–a grave which held three foreign born Semitic princesses simultaneously married to Pharaoh Thutmose III (c.1475-1425BC).  The red slivers on the rosettes are made of carnelian (as were many beads and inlays from ancient Egypt).

Diadem with two gazelle heads and carnelian, turquoise, and glass (from the tomb of three queens ca. c.1475-1425 BC)

Diadem with two gazelle heads and carnelian, turquoise, and glass (from the tomb of three queens ca. c.1475-1425 BC)

Carnelian is widely available and popular in all sorts of ornamental objects up to the present day.  Carnelian is also the name of a deep brownish red color.  Today the color carnelian is also known as Cornell red, since it is the official color of Cornell University.

Carnelian--the color!

Carnelian–the color!

A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

Rowan trees are beautiful little trees which are part of the rose family.  The tree is are also known as the sorbus trees (the genus is named Sorbus” from a Latin word meaning red brown), the quickbeam,  or the mountain ash–although they are not closely related to the true ash trees.  Because of their delicate beauty and great hardiness, rowan trees are a great favorite of landscape gardeners.  The trees are covered with pretty five-petaled flowers in May and the flowers mature into large bunches of beautiful red or white berries in late summer.  Rowan berries are too tart for human tastes when uncooked (plus the raw berries can be dangerous if eaten in huge quantities) however they can be cooked to make jams, jellies, chutneys, and teas.  Birds are particularly drawn to the berries (which is the primary way that rowan trees distribute their seeds).  Rowan trees have alternating pinnate leaves of a handsome medium green.

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan trees of different species have spread through the northern hemisphere, however they seem to have originated in the mountains of west China (which is where the greatest genetic diversity of Rowan species is found).  The berries of some of these Chinese species can be orange, pink, cream, or white.

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In addition being loved by landscapers for their prettiness, Rowan trees have a special place in European folklore. Rowan trees were connected with the pre-Christian Scandinavian/Germanic goddess Sif, a golden haired beauty who was goddess of fertility, family, wedlock, grain, and beer (and basically everything worthwhile).  Even after northern Europeans stopped worshipping Sif, the rowan tree kept its magical associations.  Throughout the middle ages it was believed to prevent witches, bad luck and lightning.  Sailors wore rowan charms and travelers invoked it for luck.

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The first house my parents bought when I was three was built by an Irish builder/developer who planted a rowan tree in the front yard.  That tree featured vividly in my childhood (the berries were perfect for playing and throwing) and I still dream about it sometimes.  It stands beautiful red and green near the center of the garden of my imagination.

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