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I wanted to write about flowers for April, but, so far this April has been a cold month and there is not much going on in the garden apart from Hellebores and crocuses.  Fortunately April is also poetry month!  Therefore, I looked up “gothic flower poetry” on Google to see if I could combine literature, flowers, and the dark foreboding beauty of Gothic aesthetics.  What Google provided was a William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.  Here it is in its totality:

“The Sick Rose”

William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem is so short as to barely be a poem, and it is by William Blake so it is probably ridiculously famous (although I have never encountered it until now).  I was going to move on and write about something else, but the disturbing truth is that I can’t get this poem out of my head!

Like a worm or invisible larva this poem insinuates its way into the reader’s mind.  Also like a minuscule worm,  the poem uses its tininess to devastating effect.    Since there are only 34 words (divided into two disturbing 17 word stanzas), there is not much information to guide the brains to a satisfactory & comprehensive conclusion.  Thus we are trapped with the ambiguity of what the rose and the worm represent…beyond just a dying rose and an invisible infectious agent which is killing it (which is already unsettling).   The effect really is akin to some virulent nematode or spirochete burrowing deeper into a a maze of defenseless petals.

Symbolically, the poem is most obviously about love and the pathology of desire:  the bed of crimson joy is destroyed by dark secret love.  The fetishism, opprobrium, and shame of sexual lust undermines the more sanctified elements of romantic love.  The worm is a perverse predator and the rose an innocent naif.

Yet this poem is not merely about human love and longing.  It is about a real living thing, a rose, destroyed by another living thing, a worm.  Blake evokes the baffling gestalt of a world of tigers and sheep where predators and prey both rely on each other to continue.  Without the wolves, the sheep would eat all of the grass and die out.  Without parasites, weakness would flourish in ways which would unmake the host.  The poem does not just mirror pathologies of love (putatively our most sacred emotion), it showcases a miniature ecosystem which is a microcosm of the whole world.  Is it a broken system?  The rose is indeed dying…

 

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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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In most Romance languages, the word for the pale red color pink comes from the same word as rose (the flower).   In English, however, the most common word for this pale red color is now “pink”—which was originally the common name of a little garden flower with a frilled edge–the dianthus.  The usage of the word “pink” to describe the pale reddish color became standard in the late eighteenth century, but before that the word described the flower–and occasionally idiomatic expressions which involved the flower.  Coincidentally English borrowed the name of the flower from Dutch, since, even in the middle ages, the Dutch were apparently the flower merchants of northern Europe.

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To further complicate this story, in the 17th century, “pinke” was a name for stil de grain yellow–a pigment which was traditionally manufactured from unripe buckthorn berries.  This yellow pigment was also known as yellow madder and it was mixed with natural blue substances to make murky greens.

So not only is it possible that pink does not exist as a color (or, at any rate, bright bluish pinks like magenta do not seem to exist naturally but are a trick of the brain) it also seems that the name for pink has fundamentally changed nature over the course of time.

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It is a confusing color with a confusing nomenclatural history, but it is still very beautiful.

It has been a while since I blogged about my garden—which is a shame since it has been unusually beautiful this year.  Alas, I am not an especially good photographer, but here are two little garden pictures so you can relive the end of May and the beginning of June with colored pencil drawings.

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Night Ruler Iris (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink on paper)

Here is “Night Ruler” the dark violet iris which I blogged about last year.  It had about two good days before a rainstorm knocked down the 4 foot flower spikes—but they were two GOOD days.  There is hardly a flower more beautiful than the near-black German iris.

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Livin’ Easy Rose (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink on paper)

Here is another beautiful flower, a floribunda rose named “Livin’ Easy” which is sort of a fluorescent coquelicot color.  It is hard to get the vibrancy of the color of this beautiful little rose (and even more difficult to capture the heavenly smell).  Maybe you will have to imagine the joy of rose season here in late spring/ early summer.

Sphinx and Rose (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

Sphinx and Rose (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

June is the season when the roses bloom—both the everblooming modern roses which bloom all season long and the classical garden roses which have a beautiful inflorescence once a year—in June (that sentence turned out to be quite circular).  Here are three small watercolor paintings of my garden this week.  We were tragically short of roses, till my goodhearted roommate purchased one (it’s a cerise and cream hybrid tea rose from the seventies known as “Double Delight”).  She purchased it, but I lugged it home from the distant nursery by brute force and planted it—so I guess it’s a mutual project.

Hydrangea and Bust (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

Hydrangea and Bust (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

I am going to try to feature more small paintings like this—daily impressions of pretty things and outlandish doodles–particularly as I transition back to running the rat race every day.  Let me know what you think!

Garden Flowers (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

Garden Flowers (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, watercolor and ink)

Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?

"Old Rose"

“Old Rose”

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April is poetry month and poetry month is coming to an end.  What better way to celebrate than with a modern poem about flowers…and what blossom could be more renowned in poetry and art than the rose?  I was worried that nobody enjoyed the previous poetry month entry (four interconnected erotic poems by Elizabethan luminary Edmund Spenser) so I asked my roommate, the gifted poet Katie Fowley to name the first poem about flowers she could think of.  Her answer was “The Rose is Obsolete” a poem by William Carlos Williams from his 1923 book Spring and All.  The poem does not utilize the rose in the obvious metaphorical contexts which are familiar from the dawn of writing (perhaps Mr. Williams saw such symbolism as obsolete).  Instead it is a poem about universal thresholds–the liminal transition between the rose and the rest of the universe.   The poem thus has a mathematical sensibility to it–as though it transcends contemplation of things which exist in order to concentrate on higher categories of being.  The reader is thus rapidly transported from the rose–real, sensual, and mundane–to abstract realms of calculus and ontology.  Cosmological truths beckon from the rose’s fractal edge as the physical rose is left behind. I think however you will agree that the poem strikes a wistful note for the obsolete rose.  The reader must decide for themselves what has been left behind–and just where humankind’s new sophistication at cosmological apprehension is leading.

[The poem does not have a title in the original printing so it just starts after the picture]

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air–The edge
cuts without cutting
meets–nothing–renews
itself in metal or porcelain–

whither? It ends–

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry–

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica–
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses–

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end–of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness–fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

What

The place between the petal’s
edge and the

From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact–lifting
from it–neither hanging
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

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Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam?  It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest).  The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs.  After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.

"You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

“You’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”

Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it?  Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them.  Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson.       Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel.  The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).

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Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background.  The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.

The Flag of Nepal

The Flag of Nepal

Folly is actually one of my favorite colors.  I am not praising it ironically.  I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name.  Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place?  Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

A wild Prairie Trillium

A wild Prairie Trillium

In the wild there are all sorts of brown flowers.  Trees, grasses, vines, and wildflowers frequently bear tiny brown or green blossoms so as not to draw the attention of herbivores.  Yet brown is an unusual color in the flower garden for the same reason.  For centuries (or millennia) gardeners have tried to breed, hybridize, or mutate flowers into increasingly vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, white, and blue.  However, if you look through botanical gardens and flower catalogs for long enough, you will find a pretty brown variety of nearly every popular sort of garden flower.  Here is a tiny gallery—and the familiar favorites are surprisingly pretty (and unfamiliar) in shades of chocolate, caramel, auburn, and sienna.

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Brown Bearded Iris

Brown Bearded Iris

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Copper toned daylily

Copper toned daylily

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

 

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Sunflower

Brown Sunflower

Continuing on with our festival of colors, we come to another brilliant hue–magenta.  Although I think this is one of the loveliest and most spectacular of all colors, it also has a pedestrian office existence at odds with its singular beauty (a situation which is familiar to many of us). The tone is known to administrative drudges everywhere as one of the three ink cartridges which must be constantly supplied, at huge mark-ups, in order for the colored printer to run.  Damn you Lexmark! But magenta’s story is far more interesting than the humdrum world of three-color printing.

Magenta is a bright and brilliant combination of red and blue, color wavelengths which are on the opposite ends of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It is named after the Battle of Magenta which was fought in June, 1859 during the Second War of Italian Independence.  The battle took place in Lombardy between the Franco Sardinian troops of Napoleon III and troops of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Afterwards the battlefield was stained red with the blood of defeated Austrians, which glowed brilliantly in the sunset (or something).  Perhaps the famous poetic imagination of the French was responsible for the name, since we all know that Magenta is not red (in fact French chemists had just synthesized a fuchsine dye and were looking for a catchy name which reflected their nationalistic ambitions).

The Battle of Magenta (19th century engraving)

Not only is magenta not red, in fact, to the consternation of Isaac Newton, magenta initially did not seem to exist. In days long prior to the Battle of Magenta (and the new marketing name), Newton was performing experiments with prisms.  He quantified the wavelengths of electromagnetic light in a familiar pattern: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet “ROYGBIV” (indigo might be a bit of a fudge because the great man was fascinated with the mystic properties of the number seven, but that is a story for another time).  One thing you will not notice in ROYGBIV is an M for magenta.  The color does not exist when white light passes through a prism: magenta is “extra-spectral” (if that’s a word).  Poor Newton was flummoxed until he combined the blue violet wavelengths of refracted light with the red wavelengths of light to form a very beautiful magenta.  Some people are nodding thinking that blue and yellow combine to make green or red and yellow make orange, but that is not the point.  Orange and green are in the rainbow.  Magenta is not.  To quote a helpful article from Liz Eliot at Biotele, “color perception is not in a one to one correspondence with the physical world.”

The combined refracted light from two different prisms

Even if it only exists because of a quirk of our brains, magenta is singularly lovely. Just beware that whenever you see someone clad in robes of fuchsia silk driving a fandango Maserati and proffering lovely magenta roses, you are being beguiled by your faulty human perceptions.

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