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Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

It is 11:00 PM on Friday night after a long week and I have no blog post written.  You know what that means! It’s time to take out my little book and post some of the frivolous sketches which I do on the train or at lunch.  Since it is October and we are approaching the scary Halloween feature week, I have been doing some creepy otherworldly little drawings.  Above is a nighttime laboratory with two mad scientists hard at work doing some transgenic modifications to various organisms.  Ethereal spirit people drift by outside beneath the cold stars and various beasts and plants inhabit the spaces of the Gothic room not taken up by weird lab apparati.   The seated scientist bears a striking resemblance to a particular Abrahamic deity, but perhaps he is just playing god (not that there is anything wrong with that).  Only when I was done with the picture did I realize that the second scientist bears a striking resemblance to Rick from Rick and Morty (do you watch The Adventures of Rick and Morty? You should!).

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

In the second drawing, a little glowing man in a hyperbaric pod lands on a strange world as a many limbed beast cavorts atop his craft.  The fronds of the creature’s vegetative back are a refuge for tiny green elf-like beings.  A pulpy red sphere with a green top in the foreground may be a tomato…or a larval version of the creature.  There is really nothing more to say about this image.

Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Sooo…I try to keep it light on Mondays so we can get through these long weeks, but one of our recent posts demands an immediate follow-up.  Remember how I was discussing the grim fate of ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Fat Michel’) the strain of bananas which were wiped out by Panama disease in the 50s?  Well, Panama disease has mutated and returned.  It’s baaaack…and this time it destroying the once immune ‘Cavendish’ plants which make up almost every banana in Europe, Africa, and the New World Photos are becoming more and more common of dying banana plants and desperate farmers burning their groves.  ‘Cavendish’ plants are clones and if one is susceptible, they all are. I really like bananas (when they are ripe) and the idea of doing without the radioactive potassium-rich fruit makes me sad. What are we going to do?

We have the technology?

We have the technology?

I guess a good market solution would be to make a transgenic banana that was resistant to the Panama disease, patent the critical gene fragment, and then sell sterile clones of the frankenfruit.  Since I like science and bananas (though not necessarily giant agribusinesses) so this is an acceptable solution to keep the yellow fruit on the table.

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

An alternate idea, however strikes me as far better.  We should send out teams of banana farmers and taste-testers to South East Asia (the first home of the banana) to collect purple, white, red, and gray bananas.  Different folks can start growing all sorts of new bananas around the world.  Undoubtedly some of them are more delicious than ‘Gros Michel” and I bet they are all more resistant to the blight.

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In fact just yesterday, regular Ferrebeekeeper commenter Beatrix reported on the delicious (albeit plain-looking) bananas of Nepal. She writes:

Here in Nepal we have all sorts of different bananas growing wild & in cultivation. They vary from short sweeties to starchy plantain sorts. Nepalis don’t have names for the different types of bananas. One of the tastiest varieties here is the ugliest – it is rather small (fingerlike), sporting a mottled greenish black peel with patches of gray lichen when ripe. The peel is surprisingly paper thin but the the flesh is a rich golden yellow & the taste is the most incredible, sweet custard-y banana flavor ever. I have never tasted this type of banana anywhere but Nepal. Most Asians prefer the starchy, bland bananas that most westerners would consider unripe – they think by the time a banana gets to the yellow mottled with brown stage it’s rotten.

Who here doesn’t want to try these delicious ugly bananas?  I am ready to pack up and head off to Nepal just to try them!  What we have is a marketing problem.  If these charlatans can sell people on stuff like organic food and bottled water, why can’t they sell delicious (but ugly) finger-length bananas?  The second coming of Panama disease needn’t spell the end of bananas (although we may lose the familiar bright yellow “Cavendish”)—perhaps this could be the beginning of a glorious new era of multicolor bananas of all sizes and flavors!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

snowdrop

The vernal equinox will be here in a few days.  This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night.  However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear).    A few bulbs have already flowered:  one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant.  The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.

Snowdrop flower

Snowdrop flower

There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants.  The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests.  Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring.  For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry.  [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering.  Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties.  In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes).  Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers).   The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture.  The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).

snowbell?

Um, snowdrop?

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

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