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garden

A photo of my garden in Brooklyn (April 17th, 2016)

Until last week it was a slow cold spring in Brooklyn—but, then, suddenly, the season sprang into action in a flurry of beautiful colors.  The tulips leaped up out of nowhere–although the accursed squirrels are beheading them as fast as they bloom–and the cherry tree blossoms are just beginning to open (more about that later).  Here is a picture of my garden the other day: you can see some of the classic Dutch-style tulips and the bleeding hearts over in the left corner.

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However I wanted to draw your attention downwards to a flower that barely makes it into the picture because of its delicate tininess: the muscari or grape hyacinth—a diminutive but exceedingly lovely plant.  Muscari originated in Central Asia, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin.  The little flowers bloom in temperate woodlands of the region’s forests early in spring before the trees have a chance to set leaves. They propagate easily and can become beautiful purple, blue, and white carpets on the woodland floor.  Muscari have escaped the garden and naturalized in parts of North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

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Grape hyacinths have that name for a reason:  they are botryoidal and take the form of a pyramidal cluster of grapes (although each individual blossom is actually a tiny urn).  The effect is enchanting up close.  At a distance the little urns become indistinguishable. In fact the individual plants blend together into an amalgamated mass of color–and what a color. The finest feature of grape hyacinths are the exquisite hues.  They come in pale blue, white, and (lately) steely pink, but the most characteristic color is also the finest—an incredible blue-violet with a glaucous shimmer.

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I have always wanted a vast field of muscari, because they begin to take on the otherworldy haunting qualities of their relatives, the bluebells. From a distance, large numbers of muscari look like rivers or oceans or the surface of alien aquatic worlds.  They are just beautiful!  Hopefully mine will keep expanding so that future springs will be even more dramatic.

Wherever I go these days, strangers come up to me begging to know spoilers for The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser’s great 12 part poetic masterpiece from 1579 (which Ferrebeekeeper is publishing in its entirety, month by month, to universal acclaim).  Will spring return to the picturesque English countryside? Will the shepherds ply their Arcadian trade while exchanging classical allusions? Will romantic contrivances lead to deeper questions concerning the human condition? Will love triumph anon?

I can’t answer these burning questions.  You will just have to wait for each additional installment and keep reading…but, by coincidence, here is the March eclogue. The grim months, January and February, are giving way to spring, when all of nature awakes. Two callow shepherd youth, Willye and Thomalin, discourse upon the beauties of the waxing season.  Willye lightly teases his friend Thomalin concerning the season’s longstanding connection with amorous pursuits (as adolescent boys everywhere are wont to goad their fellows), whereupon Thomalin tells a hunting anecdote of firing his crossbow at a beautiful winged child.  This supernatural entity easily avoids the inexperienced shafts of the shepherd and gravely wounds the farm lad with a return arrow.  Oh! The wanton follies of love!

Spenser follows up this little scene with an author’s gloss (which makes use of playfully ironic language to hint at deeper and unspoken undercurrents buried in the allusions). But enough of my prating, you came here to read Spenser and contemplate the paradoxical nature of love as explained by a 16th century aesthete.  So, without further preamble, here is…

The Shepheardes Calender: March

By Edmund Spenser

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Ægloga Tertia.

 A R G V M E N T.

IN this Æglogue two shepheards boyes taking occasion of the season, beginne to make purpose of loue and other pleasaunce, which to springtime is most agreeable. The speciall meaning hereof is, to giue certaine markes and tokens, to know Cupide the Poets God of Loue. But more particularlye I thinke, in the person of Thomalin is meant some secrete freend, who scorned Loue and his knights so long, till at length him selfe was entangled, and unwares wounded with the dart of some beautifull regard, which is Cupides arrowe.

WILLY. THOMALIN.
Thomalin, why sitten we so,
As weren overwent with Woe.
Upon so fair a Morrow?
The joyous time now nigheth fast,
That shall alegg this bitter Blast,
And slake the Winter Sorrow.

THOMALIN.
Siker Willy, thou warnest well;
For Winter’s Wrath begins to quell,
And pleasant Spring appeareth:
The Grass now ‘gins to be refresht
The Swallow peeps out of her Nest,
And cloudy Welkin cleareth.

WILLY.
Seest not thilk same Hawthorn Stud,
How bragly it begins to bud,
And utter his tender Head?
Flora now calleth forth each Flower,
And bids make ready Maia’s Bower,
That new is uprist from Bed.
Tho shall we sporten in delight,
And learn with Lettice to wex light,
That scornfully looks askaunce:
Tho will we little Love awake,
That now sleepeth in Lethe Lake,
And pray him leaden our daunce.

THOMALIN.
Willy, I ween thou be a Sot;
For lusty Love still sleepeth not,
But is abroad at his Game.

WILLY.
How kenst thou that he is awoke?
Or hast thy self his Slumber broke?
Or made privy to the same?

THOMALIN.
No, but happily I him spide,
Where in a Bush he did him hide,
With Wings of purple and blue:
And were not, that my Sheep would stray,
The privy Marks I would bewray,
Whereby by chaunce I him knew.

WILLY.
Thomalin, have no care for-thy,
My self will have a double Eye,
Ylike to my Flock and thine;
For alas at home I have a Sire,
A Stepdame eke as hot as Fire,
That duly adays counts mine.

THOMALIN.
Nay, but thy seeing will not serve,
My Sheep for that may chaunce to swerve,
And fall into some Mischief.
For sithens is but the third morrow,
That I chauncst to fall asleep with Sorrow,
And waked again with Grief:
The while thilk same unhappy Ewe,
Whose clouted Leg her hurt doth shew,
Fell headlong into a Dell,
And there unjointed both her Bones:
Mought her Neck been jointed attones,
She should have need no more Spell.
Th’ Elf was so wanton and so wood,
(But now I trow can better good)
She mought ne gang on the Green.

WILLY.
Let be, as may be, that is past;
That is to come, let be forecast:
Now tell us what thou hast seen.

THOMALIN.
It was upon a Holy-day
When Shepherds Grooms han leave to play,
I cast to go a shooting:
Long wandring up and down the Land,
With Bow and Bolts in either Hand,
For Birds in Bushes tooting:
At length within the Ivy tod,
(There shrouded was the little God)
I heard a busie bustling.
I bent my Bolt against the Bush,
Listning if any thing did rush,
But then heard no more rustling.
Tho peeping close into the thick,
Might see the moving of some quick,
Whose Shape appeared not;
But were it Fairy, Fiend, or Snake,
My Courage earn’d it to awake,
And manfully thereat shot.
With that sprang forth a naked Swain,
With spotted Wings like Peacocks Train,
And laughing lope to a Tree;
His gilden Quiver at his Back,
And silver Bow which was but slack,
Which lightly he bent at me.
That seeing, I level’d again,
And shot at him with Might and Main,
As thick, as it had hailed.
So long I shot, that all was spent.
Tho pumy Stones I hastily hent,
And threw; but nought availed
He was so wimble and so wight,
From Bough to Bough he leaped light,
And oft the Pumies latched.
Therewith afraid, I ran away;
But he, that earst seem’d but to play,
A Shaft in earnest snatched,
And hit me running, in the Heel;
For then I little smart did feel,
But soon it sore increased.
And now it rankleth more and more,
And inwardly it festereth sore,
Ne wote I how to cease it.

WILLY.
Thomalin, I pity thy Plight,
Perdy with Love thou diddest fight:
I know him by a Token.
For once I heard my Father say,
How he him caught upon a day,
(Whereof he will be wroken)
Entangled in a Fowling-Net,
Which he for Carrion-Crows had set,
That in our Pear-tree haunted:
Tho said, he was a winged Lad,
But Bow and Shafts as then none had;
Else had he sore be daunted.
But see, the Welkin thicks apace,
And stooping Phoebus steeps his race:
It’s time to haste us homeward.

WILLY’S EMBLEM.
To be Wise and eke to Love,
Is granted scarce to Gods above.

THOMALIN’S EMBLEM.
Of Honey and of Gall, in love there is store:
The Honey is much, but the Gall is more.


GLOSS.

THIS Æglogue seemeth somewhat to resemble that same of Theocritus, wherein the boy likewise telling the old man, that he had shot at a winged boy in a tree, was by hym warned, to beware of mischiefe to come.

Ouerwent) overgone.

Alegge) to lessen or aswage.

To quell) to abate.

Welkin) the skie.

The swallow) which bird vseth to be counted the messenger, as it were, the fore runner of springe.

Flora) the Goddesse of flowres, but indede (as saith Tacitus) a famous harlot, which with the abuse of her body hauing gotten great riches, made the people of Rome her heyre: who in remembraunce of so great beneficence, appointed a yearely feste for the memoriall of her, calling her, not as she was, nor as some doe think, Andronica, but Flora: making her the Goddesse of all floures, and doing yerely to her solemne sacrifice.

Maias bowre) that is the pleasaunt fielde, or rather the Maye bushes. Maia is a Goddes and the mother of Mercurie, in honour of whome the moneth of Maye is of her name so called, as sayth Macrobius.

Lettice) the name of some country lasse.

Ascaunce) askewe or asquint.

For thy) therefore.

Lethe) is a lake in hell, which the Poetes call the lake of forgetfulnes. For Lethe signifieth forgetfulnes. Wherein the soules being dipped, did forget the cares of their former lyfe. So that by loue sleeping in Lethe lake, he meaneth he was almost forgotten and out of knowledge, by reason of winters hardnesse, when al pleasures, as it were, sleepe and weare out of mynde.

Assotte) to dote.

His slomber) To breake Loues slomber, is to exercise the delightes of Loue and wanton pleasures.

Winges of purple) so is he feigned of the Poetes.

For als) he imitateth Virgils verse. 

Est mihi namque domi pater, est iniusta nouerca &c.

A dell) a hole in the ground.

Spell) is a kind of verse or charme, that in elder tymes they vsed often to say ouer euery thing, that they would haue preserued, as the Nightspel for theeues, and the woodspell. And herehence I thinke is named the gospell, as it were Gods spell or worde. And so sayth Chaucer, Listeneth Lordings to my spell.

Gange) goe 

An Yuie todde) a thicke bushe.

Swaine) a boye: for so he is described of the Poetes, to be a boye .s. alwayes freshe and lustie: blindfolded, because he maketh no difference of Personages: wyth diuers coloured winges, .s. ful of flying fancies: with bowe and arrow, that is with glaunce of beautye, which prycketh as a forked arrowe. He is sayd also to haue shafts, some leaden, some golden: that is, both pleasure for the gracious and loued, and sorow for the louer that is disdayned or forsaken. But who liste more at large to behold Cupids colours and furniture, let him reade ether Propertius, or Moschus his Idyllion of wandring loue, being now most excellently translated into Latine by the singuler learned man Angelus Politianus: Whych worke I haue seene amongst other of thys Poets doings, very wel translated also into Englishe Rymes. 

Wimble and wighte) Quicke and deliuer.

In the heele) is very Poetically spoken, and not without speciall iudgement. For I remember, that in Homer it is sayd of Thetis, that shee tooke her young babe Achilles being newely borne, and holding him by the heele, dipped him in the River of Styx. The vertue whereof is, to defend and keepe the bodyes washed therein from any mortall wound. So Achilles being washed al ouer, saue anely his hele, by which his mother held, was in the rest [invulnerable]: therfore by Paris was feyned to bee shotte with a poysoned arrowe in the heele, whiles he was busie about the marying of Polyena in the temple of Apollo. Which mysticall fable Eustathius vnfolding, sayth: that by wounding in the hele, is meant lustfull loue. For from the heele (as say the best Phisitions) to the preuie partes there passe certaine veines and slender synnewes, as also the like come from the head, and are carryed lyke little pypes behynd the eares: so that (as sayth Hippocrates) yf those veynes there be cut a sonder, the partie straighte becometh cold and vnfruiteful. which reason our Poete wel weighing, maketh this shepheards boye of purpose to be wounded by Loue in the heele. 

Latched) caught. 

Wroken) reuenged.

For once) In this tale is sette out the simplicitye of shepheards opinion of Loue.

Stouping Phaebus) Is a Periphrasis of the sunne setting.
Embleme.

Hereby is meant, that all the delights of Loue, wherein wanton youth walloweth, be but follye mixt with bitternesse, and sorow sawced with repentaunce. For besides that the very affection of Loue it selfe tormenteth the mynde, and vexeth the body many wayes, with vnrestfulnesse all night, and wearines all day, seeking for that we can not haue: euen the selfe things which best before vs liked, in course of time and chaung of ryper yeares, whiche also therewithall chaungeth our wonted lyking and former fantasies, will then seeme lothsome and breede vs annoyaunce, when yougthes flowre is withered, and we fynde our bodyes and wits aunswere not to suche vayne iollitie and lustfull pleasaunce.

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Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) by Healthy Home Gardening

Boy, I am ready for spring…but it hasn’t quite sprung yet here in Brooklyn. So far the only things blooming here are hellebores, snowdrops, and… the Oregon-grape? This sounds like some improbable status-item fruit from Whole Foods, but it is actually not a grape at all, instead it Mahonia aquifolium a member of the barberry family.   The plant takes the form of a shrub or tiny tree 1–2 m (3 feet –6 feet) tall which is covered in holly-like evergreen leaves. The plant is indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America where it can be found from southern Alaska to Northern California. It is exceedingly hardy and is one of the first plants to bloom in spring when it is covered with lovely little yellow flowers which look like ranunculuses (for good reason, since barberry plants are close relative of the buttercups and ranunculuses).

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The yellow flowers swiftly turn into little purple black fruits with a glaucous blush. These berries were a big part of the diet of Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest (although I am a bit surprised it is not poisonous like most of the buttercups). I guess I’ll keep my eyes open for these around the neighborhood (they have been widely planted as ornamentals), but I have more hope for seeing crocuses…if any survive the squirrels. Be of good cheer! Spring is coming!

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The fruit of the Oregon-grape

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Springtime On The Farm (Walt Curlee, 2010, oil on artboard]

It’s February 2nd—Groundhog Day—one of the many feeble pseudo-holidays with which the bleak & wintry month of February is filled. Ferrebeekeeper already wrote a comprehensive and somewhat touching post about the eponymous North American marmots which give this day its special name and character. So what do I write about now (other than that Bill Murray movie)? Today as I look around the internet, seeking a new nuance on the topic, I notice that there are a surprising number of articles lambasting groundhogs for being so frequently wrong about how much longer winter will last. This strikes me as abominably wrongheaded—since the Groundhog Day scrying tradition (such as it is) is really about humans looking for shadows rather than actual marmot insight into the wildly fluctuating early Anthropocene weather. Therefore I am posting this fine work of groundhog artwork by contemporary artist Walt Curlee. The pretty painting has many virtues, but chief among them is that it skips over February entirely. The groundhog, the farmer, and the barely visible dairy cows in the background are all enjoying a lovely clement spring day. There are winsome spring flowers and delicious-looking morel mushrooms (which the groundhog seems to have his eye on). The viewer can practically smell the actinomycetes of the freshly tilled earth. Best of all, the farm is located on beautiful rolling foothills which are sloping upwards towards the Appalachian Mountains. It reminds me of the family farm in southeast Ohio.

I spend a lot of time grumbling about the ugliness of contemporary art, but this charming folk painting is a reminder that there are plenty of fine artists out there working away at what they find beautiful irrespective of what the shallow fashions in Chelsea and Bushwick dictate. Thanks, Walt Curlee. I look forward to seeing more of your farm paintings. I suppose we should also thank the groundhogs for putting up with a day of grabby mayors and inane commentary. Most of all, we should keep our eye on the future. Whatever happens, winter will not last forever. [oh, and you can buy a print of Walt’s painting here, or just check out his other works, if you like].

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

This lovely little yellow flower is Eranthis hyemalis, more commonly known as the winter aconite.  Native to the woodlands of continental Europe, the winter aconite is a member of the sprawling & poisonous buttercup family (which includes beauties and horrors like the monkshood, the ranunculus, and the delphiniums).  Eranthis hyemalis which is now blooming here in New York (in gardens which are eccentric enough to have it) is a quintessential spring ephemeral—it blossoms and grows in earliest spring before any trees are in leaf—or even in bloom.  The plant flowers and puts out leaves and gathers sunlight and stores energy all before the other plants even start.  Then, as the woodland canopy expands above it and as its growing spot is covered with shade, the aconite dies back to its hardy underground tuber which remains dormant until next spring.  Although it lives in verdant forests it could almost be an ascetic desert flower based on its hardiness and hermit-like lifestyle.  It would be a big mistake to mistake the flower for a weakling or a vegetable–like the other buttercups, all parts of it are ferociously poisonous.  Do not eat it (or smoke it…or even look at it funny)!

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Forsythia

Forsythia

Spring, spring, spring! Today is the first day that has actually felt like spring. Soon the forsythias will be up and then, suddenly all sorts of spring blossoms will appear in a riot of beautiful color. Forsythias are such a familiar blossoming shrubs that I have never thought to find out where they are from, and how they got here. The instantly familiar yellow flowers grow on long whiplike shoots and appear everywhere in early spring. They are the introductory notes from which the rest of the symphony swells (and yet they are always there beneath the rest of the music). Wasn’t it always that way?

Forsythia in a formal garden

Forsythia in a formal garden

Actually, forsythias are native to East Asia. Out of eleven wild species, only one obscure species had spread from Asia to southeastern Europe prior to the age of exploration. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that western gardeners and botanists found out about them as traders and diplomats visited the great gardens of China, Korea, and Japan.

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Forsythias are extremely easy to cultivate from cuttings. Low hanging boughs frequently already have rootlets. Europeans wasted no time in bringing the lovely yellow shrubs back home where they fed the public’s insatiable appetite for novelty. Indeed they were part of the 18th century Chinoiserie fad, which also gave us the monstrous invasive tree of heaven [spits on ground and curses]. Soon forsythias were in temperate gardens everywhere. They are coincidentally named for William Forsyth (1737–1804), a Scottish botanist who was the king’s head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Ironically, despite the fact that forsythias have been omnipresent in American and European gardens since the late eighteenth century, they have not permeated very far into western culture. They are a beautiful shrub which is everywhere, but they do not have the same mythical and herbal associations for us as myrtles, redbuds, crocuses or such. Of course forsythias do have such associations in China, Korea, and Japan. They are one of the fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine and their sticks are used to manufacture a classical Korean stringed instrument. The myths and art of East Asia likewise favor the beautiful golden shrubs. The flower exemplify nature’s promise of rebirth.

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One of my personal all-time favorite moments with flora and fauna involved forsythia…and my favorite animal—the mighty elephant. I was at the Bronx Zoo in early spring and their (then) adolescent female Asian elephant was outside appreciating the first nice day. Elephants eat lots of vegetation of all sorts and a thoughtful zookeeper had put a bunch of flowering forsythia fronds in the enclosure as a treat.

Elephants are arguably the most intelligent land animals except for certain problematic primates. They love to play and show off. The little elephant grabbed the beautiful yellow forsythias in her trunk and ran back and forth holding them aloft like a girl with a bouquet. Then, in a moment of pure exuberance, she threw them all high up in the air and raced back and forth in the resultant shower of bright yellow blossoms.

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Since she was such a young elephant, she was still covered with fine downy hairs and the forsythia flowers got all caught up in these. So she became dotted with little golden flowers. She was beaming in delight and had one of the happiest expressions I have ever seen on anyone. The memory is enshrined in my heart as an enduring exemplar of joy.  Although the internet had plenty of other sorts of images, I couldn’t find any happy elephants with forsythias–so I sketched one for you just now above,

Argh! SQUIRRELS!

Squirrel damage...

Squirrel damage…

Since December, the garden has been a desolate wasteland. Great sheets of scabrous ice and unwholesome snow have covered everything. Above the frozen crust, only the holly and the yew showed any life. Finally, here in mid-March, Brooklyn has started to come alive again. Little green shoots appeared—crocuses and the tender tips of tulips—only to be ripped off and thrown down by marauding squirrels. How I detest these hardy arboreal rodents!

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I hate the squirrels so much! But I like them and admire them too. The ones in the back yard are eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Their taxonomical name means “shadow tail” for they have distinctive furry tails which look gray at a distance but are actually many subtle woodland colors. If the squirrels don’t want to be seen, they can wrap themselves in their tails and vanish like chameleons—but usually they wish to be observed as they brazenly saunter around the garden committing enormities. Brooklyn needs some more hawks to thin their ranks a bit.

Speaking of thinning, I guess I could feed the squirrels. They are understandably hungry as they use up their final winter resources and start families. It would mean that I spent a bunch of money on seeds, but maybe the distracted squirrels would stop tearing up my spring flowers. Yet, if I do that, the squirrel population will burgeon. These accursed squirrels gnawed a hole in the side of the house and began living in the crawl-space above the bathroom, so doing anything which creates more of them is fraught with peril. Last year, the landlady sent trappers to capture the squirrels in the house (the battle of wits between the squirrels and the wacky band of Trinidadian misfits she found was really something).

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

Gray squirrels are not unlike the tree-dwelling rodent-type creatures from which primates evolved (a group of extinct animals which I need to write about at some point).  Although they seem frenetic and crazed, the squirrels are actually surprisingly clever. There is an intense methodology to how they bury things for winter (indeed, they are saving—something I certainly don’t have the discipline to do). Their loquaciously chatter and chirps are clearly a complex system of communication. Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them some ruined crocuses and tulips, but, as I write this, I notice that it’s snowing again. Those prospective flowers were all that was giving me hope for spring…and now even those jaunty little bud tips are gone.

Kelly Green

Hey, so Ferrebeekeeper has written about all sorts of esoteric and oddball colors, but what is up with Kelly green, a color so famous and prominent that it gets its own month? Actually, I have been avoiding writing about Kelly green because the truth is Kelly green is a pretender–a modern American color masquerading as an ancient Irish one!

A male model in a Three-piece Kelly Green suit

A male model presenting a conservative  three-piece Kelly green suit

As you probably know by now, Kelly green is a bright mid-tone green which inclines toward yellow rather than blue. It looks like newly sprouted grass and it stands out to our primate eyes/brains–probably because of ancient dietary issues of our monkey-like forbears (although all sorts of respectable people and institutions constantly appear on the news exhorting us to eat more salad). Different sources give different dates for the first known references to Kelly Green as either 1917 or 1927, so the color does not even reach back as far as the great waves of Irish immigration, but is a wholly modern invention. Indeed it seems like someone chose the brightest grass green color and named it after a short punchy Irish surname (which sounds like the modus-operandi of Madison Avenue, political operators, Hollywood, or some other enclave of sharkish American marketers).

Saint Patrick's Day Noisemakers

Saint Patrick’s Day Noisemakers

Throughout the twentieth century the color was further popularized by representing all sorts of professional and semi-professional sports teams, but it has found its greatest hold on our collective attention as the heraldic color of Saint Patrick’s Day and the month of March in general. In my head, the name instantly evokes puking teenagers with wigs, cheap clothes, and plastic spangles all of the brightest Kelly green.

Saint Patrick's Day in Chicago Illinois

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago Illinois

Yet the history of Kelly green (or lack thereof) needs not interfere with the appreciation of the color! I have never been to Ireland, but I have laid eyes on it from a plane and it was indeed a rainbow of brilliant yellow-greens. In the populous northern hemisphere, March is the month when the new grasses–and all sorts of other plants–begin to return from winter dormancy so the marketers hit upon a deeper truth of the biosphere. Also, I have been that greensick teenager with a plastic derby and it was horrible and glorious. The color is a perfect representation of early springtime in one’s life as well as in the broader ecosystems of the temperate region!

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

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The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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Antique French "Poisson d'Avril" card

Antique French “Poisson d’Avril” card

It’s April Fools’ Day! Although rampant pranks, tomfoolery, and hijinks can make navigating the internet (and the world beyond) a bit treacherous, today is also a special day for Ferrebeekeeper. Four years ago this blog started out on April 1, 2010. Thanks again to all of our readers for your support and comments! No fooling! My readers are the best!

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I feel conflicted about April Fools’ Day as currently celebrated in the English and Scandinavian world. The news becomes somewhat useless today–as any story could be a fabrication. The real sadness is the actual news becomes suspect. Ebola epidemic, live artillery exchange between North and South Korea, and mudslides are hardly laughing matters (although anything involving our political leadership might be a different matter).

Les-poissons-d-avril-politiques-de-2012

The French have a much nicer celebration of April Fools’ which is known as Poisson d’Avril (literally “fish of April”). In France, pranksters try to surreptitiously affix colorful paper fish to the backs of various friends, family, and colleagues. The day also has a more child-friendly aspect, as grade-school children make colorful craft fishes (either for pranks, or for display). Additionally, delicious confectionary fish are a happy addition to the informal holiday. Some folklore experts believe that the fish tradition was started due to a disconnection between the new year as celebrated by sophisticated courtiers and burghers (on January 1st) versus the beginning of the agricultural year in April–which played a bigger role in the life of more provincial folk. Other academics speculate that the holiday is even more literal and celebrated the hatching of naïve young fish which could be easily caught and consumed!

Kindly pretend I sent one of these to each of my readers!

Kindly pretend I sent one of these to each of my readers!

Of course the true roots of April Fools’ Day go back much further into the depths of history. The Romans had a holiday named Hilaria which was observed on the vernal equinox in veneration of Cybele, the great mother goddess. The Indians celebrate Holi, a spring festival of colors, intoxication, and fun. Perhaps the most ancient spring prank holidays involve ancient Persia. Purim, a Jewish spring holiday, commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Persian hegemony. The day is celebrated by contemporary Jews with masquerading and comic dramatizations. The ancient Persians themselves had a sacred spring holiday, Sizdah Bedar, which celebrated humankind’s connection with nature through games, feasts, and communion with the forest and country.

If I say "Happy Persian Spring!" will I be censored by the mullahs?

If I say “Happy Persian Spring!” will I be censored by the mullahs?

It is this last holiday which encapsulates my true feelings. Winter’s dreadful desolation is finally passing and new life and hope are on the way (irrespective of pranks or paper fish). To quote The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a strange but evocative Victorian translation of medieval Persian verse:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Illustrations to the Rubaiyat (Edmund Dulac)

Illustrations to the Rubaiyat (Edmund Dulac)

 

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