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We are reaching the end of the year and now it is time too to reach the end of The Shepheardes Calender. This year was harder to get through than I expected it to be…and so was this poem! There was a lot of weird maudlin rustic business going on and a lot of terrifying politics. The entire thing was nearly impossible to understand–even with help from trained commenters. Perhaps you will not be entirely surprised that the conclusion of The Shepheardes Calender is sad and unfullfilling–since it ends the same way it started: it is winter and Colin, the writer’s alter-ego and approximate protagonist of the piece is lamenting his unhappy lot (and his unrequited love for Rosalind).
Colin compares the four seasons of the year to the four stages of human life, but he concludes that an early winter has blighted the fruits of fall and laments that winter will finish him off (which proved prophetic for Spenser, whose fortunes fell apart utterly which led him to an early death of starvation). Like the November ecologue, the lament has the full force of conviction behind it and the poetry (my favorite passage of Spenser is the passage in the Fairy Queen, where Despair nearly defeats the RedCrosse knight by whispering syllabant words of negation and defeatism). The Redcrosse knight is rescued by Una and Arthur…but no such figures hold out hope for shepheardes and poets, so we leave Colin heartbroken saying fairwell to his sheep as the cold settles ineluctably upon him. Yet the poem is still here…and we are still talking about Spenser…Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt!
Without further comment, here is the conclusion of
The Shepheardes Calender
A R G V M E N T.
THis Æglogue (euen as the first beganne) is ended with a complaynte of Colin to God Pan. wherein as weary of his former wayes, he proportioneth his life to the foure seasons of the yeare, comparing hys youthe to the spring time, when he was fresh and free form loues follye. His manhoode to the sommer, which he sayth, was consumed with greate heate and excessiue drouth caused through a Comet or blasinge starre, by which he meaneth loue, which passion is comenly compared to such flames and immoderate heate. His riper yeares hee resembleth to an vnseasonable harueste wherein the fruites fall ere they be rype. His latter age to winters chyll & frostie season, now drawing neare to his last ende.
He gentle shepheard satte beside a springe,
All in the shadowe of a bushy brere,
That Colin hight, which wel could pype and singe,
For he of Tityrus his songs did lere.
There as he satte in secreate shade alone,
Thus gan he make of loue his piteous mone. O soueraigne Pan thou God of shepheards all,
Which of our tender Lambkins takest keepe:
And when our flocks into mischaunce mought fall,
Doest save from mischeife the vnwary sheepe:
Als of their maisters hast no lesse regarde,
Then of the flocks, which thou doest watch and ward:
I thee beseche (so be thou deigne to heare,
Rude ditties tund to shepheards Oaten reede,
Or if I euer sonet song so cleare,
As it with pleasaunce mought thy fancie feede)
Hearken awhile from thy greene cabinet,
The rurall song of carefull Colinet.
Whilome in youth, when flowrd my ioyfull spring,
Like Swallow swift I wandred here and there:
For heate of heedlesse lust me so did sting,
That I of doubted daunger had no feare.
I went the wastefull woodes and forest wyde,
Withouten dreade of Wolues to bene espyed.
I wont to raunge amydde the mazie thickette,
And gather nuttes to make me Christmas game:
And ioyed oft to chace the trembling Pricket,
Or hunt the hartlesse hare, til shee were tame.
What wreaked I of wintrye ages waste,
Tho deemed I, my spring would euer laste.
How often haue I scaled the craggie Oke,
All to dislodge the Rauen of her neste:
Howe haue I wearied with many a stroke,
The stately Walnut tree, the while the rest
Vnder the tree fell all for nuts at strife:
For ylike to me was libertee and lyfe.
And for I was in thilke same looser yeares,
(Whether the Muse so wrought me from my birth,
Or I tomuch beleeued my shepherd peres)
Somedele ybent to song and musicks mirth,
A good olde shephearde, Wrenock was his name,
Made me by arte more cunning in the same.
Fro thence I durst in derring [doe] compare
With shepheards swayne, what euer fedde in field:
And if that Hobbinol right iudgement bare,
To Pan his owne selfe pype I neede not yield.
For if the flocking Nymphes did folow Pan,
The wiser Muses after Colin ranne.
But ah such pryde at length was ill repayde,
The shepheards God (perdie God was he none)
My hurtlesse pleasaunce did me ill vpbraide,
My freedome lorne, my life he lefte to mone.
Loue they him called, that gaue me checkmate,
But better mought they haue behote him Hate.
Tho gan my louely Spring bid me farewel,
And Sommer season sped him to display
(For loue then in the Lyons house did dwell)
The raging fyre, that kindled at his ray.
A comett stird vp that vnkindly heate,
That reigned (as men sayd) in Venus seate.
Forth was I ledde, not as I wont afore,
When choise I had to choose my wandring waye:
But whether luck and loues vnbridled lore
Would leade me forth on Fancies bitte to playe:
The bush my bedde, the bramble was my bowre,
The Woodes can witnesse many a wofull stowre.
Where I was wont to seeke the honey Bee,
Working her formall rowmes in Wexen frame:
The grieslie Todestool growne there mought I se
And loathed Paddocks lording on the same.
And where the chaunting birds luld me a sleepe,
The ghastlie Owle her grieuous ynne doth keepe.
Then as the springe giues place to elder time,
And bringeth forth the fruite of sommers pryde:
Also my age now passed yougthly pryme,
To thinges of ryper reason selfe applyed.
And learnd of lighter timber cotes to frame,
Such as might saue my sheepe and me fro shame.
To make fine cages for the Nightingale,
And Baskets of bulrushes was my wont:
Who to entrappe the fish in winding sale
Was better seene, or hurtful beastes to hont?
I learned als the signes of heauen to ken,
How Phoebe sayles, where Venus sittes and when.
And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges,
The sodain rysing of the raging seas:
The soothe of byrds by beating of their wings,
The power of herbs, both which can hurt and ease:
And which be wont tenrage the restlesse sheepe,
And which be wont to worke eternall sleepe.
But ah vnwise and witlesse Colin cloute,
That kydst the hidden kinds of many a wede:
Yet kydst not ene to cure thy sore hart roote,
Whose ranckling wound as yet does rifely bleede.
Why liuest thou stil, and yet hast thy deathes wound?
Why dyest thou stil, and yet aliue art founde?
Thus is my sommer worne away and wasted,
Thus is my haruest hastened all to rathe:
The eare that budded faire, is burnt & blasted,
And all my hoped gaine is turned to scathe.
Of all the seede, that in my youth was sowne,
Was nought but brakes and brambles to be mowne.
My boughes with bloosmes that crowned were at firste,
And promised of timely fruite such store,
Are left both bare and barrein now at erst:
The flattring fruite is fallen to grownd before.
And rotted, ere they were halfe mellow ripe:
My haruest wast, my hope away dyd wipe.
The fragrant flowres, that in my garden grewe,
Bene withered, as they had bene gathered long.
Theyr rootes bene dryed vp for lacke of dewe,
Yet dewed with teares they han be euer among.
Ah who has wrought my Ro[s]alind this spight
To spil the flowres, that should her girlond dight,
And I, that whilome wont to frame my pype,
Vnto the shifting of the shepheards foote:
Sike follies nowe haue gathered as too ripe,
And cast hem out, as rotten an vnsoote.
The loser Lasse I cast to please nomore,
One if I please, enough is me therefore.
And thus of all my haruest hope I haue
Nought reaped but a weedye crop of care:
Which, when I thought haue thresht in swelling sheaue,
Cockel for corne, and chaffe for barley bare.
Soone as the chaffe should in the fan be fynd,
All was blowne away of the wauering wynd.
So now my yeare drawes to his latter terme,
My spring is spent, my sommer burnt vp quite:
My harueste hasts to stirre vp winter sterne,
And bids him clayme with rigorous rage hys right.
So nowe he stormes with many a sturdy stoure,
So now his blustring blast eche coste doth scoure.
The carefull cold hath nypt my rugged rynde,
And in my face deepe furrowes eld hath pight:
My head besprent with hoary frost I fynd,
And by myne eie the Crow his clawe dooth wright.
Delight is layd abedde, and pleasure past,
No sonne now shines, cloudes han all ouercast.
Now leaue ye shepheards boyes yo[u]r merry glee,
My Muse is hoarse and weary of thys stounde:
Here will I hang my pype vpon this tree,
Was neuer pype of reede did better sounde.
Winter is come, that blowes the bitter blaste,
And after Winter dreerie death does hast.
Gather ye together my little flocke,
My little flock, that was to me so liefe:
Let me, ah lette me in your folds ye lock,
Ere the breme Winter breede you greater griefe.
Winter is come, that blowes the balefull breath,
And after Winter commeth timely death.
Adieu delightes, that lulled me asleepe,
Adieu my deare, whose loue I bought so deare:
Adieu my little Lambes and loued sheepe,
Adieu ye Woodes that oft my witnesse were:
Adieu good Hobbinol, that was so true,
Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.
Colins Embleme.[Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt.]
The 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and they have the potential to be all too interesting. The Brazilian government has been mired in a serious executive political crisis. The Brazilian economy is melting down. There is a crimewave in Rio AND the beautiful tropical city is at the epicenter of the Zika crisis. Pundits are predicting disaster, but I am still hopeful that Brazil can pull it off. My cautious optimism stems partly from love of international sports; partly from the desire to see tropical dance spectaculars featuring samba dancers & bizarre floats; and partly from morbid curiosity.
But before we get to the 2016 Summer Olympics there is business to discuss concerning the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferrebeekeeper tries to stay abreast of mascots because there is larger symbolic meaning in these cartoonish corporate figureheads. Behold “Soohorang,” the white tiger mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Real tigers are magnificent, stately, adorable, and terrifying–so they make good mascots. The last Korean Olympics, the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 had an orange and black Amur tiger mascot “Hodori” (below) who was pretty endearing. Unfortunately Soohorang is a bit too digitally rendered to look like anything other than the output of a committee and a graphics design team.
According to the June 2nd press statement at Olympics.org,“In mythology, the white tiger was viewed as a guardian that helped protect the country and its people. The mascot’s colour also evokes its connection to the snow and ice of winter sports.” I guess white tigers are special in Korean and Indian mythology, but in Chinese mythology the white tiger is a monster which symbolically represents the west and death.
Now that a mascot has been chosen, we can start looking forward to the 2018 winter Olympics in the north of South Korea (somehow the Olympic committee found the one place that is the focus of even more socio-political tension than the Black Sea). In the mean time the Summer Olympics is fast approaching. Why not sit back and pour yourself a Cachaça, read about the Brazilian mascot “Vinicius” (pictured at the top of this article, playing on and around a cable car in an unsafe manner) and start preparing for the games.
It is February, my least favorite month. Now is when I most keenly envy you lucky readers who dwell in the Southern hemisphere (where February means something like August)–for here, in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the coldest and worst part of the year. The gray frozen waste of February also reminds me acutely of age swiftly sneaking up on me–and of all the terrible decisions I have made which have resulted in me being a worthless broke clerk. Yet February has one virtue–it is short. So, before it is over (happy day!) we had better get to the Shepheardes Calender, the great 12 part seasonal poem by Edmund Spenser. In this second section we find the young shepherd Cuddy complaining (like me) about February. He is rebuked by the ancient shepherd Thenot and they get into an argument about the changing seasons and about age versus youth. Cuddy defends youth by boasting of his own amorous conquests. Thenot rebukes Cuddy for being callow with an allegorical tale about the oak and the briar. Cuddy finds the (admittedly troubling) story long-winded and empty of meaning and the two fall out. Ah…February!
Anyway, you came here to read Spenser, not to hear long-winded tirades against the (manifold) miseries of this wintry month. So, without any more preamble, here are Spenser’s words:
Shepheardes Calender II: Februarie
Ah for pity, will rank Winter’s Rage
These bitter Blasts never ‘gin t’ asswage?
The keen Cold blows through my beaten Hide,
All as I were through the Body gride.
My ragged Ronts all shiver and shake,
As done high Towers in an Earthquake:
They wont in the Wind wag their wriggle Tails,
Peark as a Peacock; but now it avails.
Leudly complainest, thou lazy Lad,
Of Winter’s wrack for making thee sad?
Must not the World wend in his common Course,
From Good to Bad, and from Bad to Worse,
From Worse, unto that is Worst of all,
And then return to his former Fall?
Who will not suffer the stormy Time,
Where will he live till the lusty Prime?
Self have I worn out thrice thirty Years,
Some in much Joy, many in many Tears:
Yet never complained of Cold nor Heat,
Of Summer’s Flame, nor of Winter’s Threat
Ne never was to Fortune Foe-man,
But gently took, that ungently came.
And ever my Flock was my chief Care,
Winter or Summer they mought well fare.
No marvel, Thenot, if thou can bear
Chearfully the Winter’s wrathful Chear;
For Age and Winter accord full nigh,
This chill, that cold, this crooked, that wry:
And as the lowring Weather looks down,
So seemest thou like Good-Friday to frown.
But my flowring Youth is Foe to Frost,
My Ship unwont in Storms to be tost.
The Sovereign of Seas he blames in vain,
That once Sea-beat, will to Sea again.
So loytring live you little Heard-Groom,
Keeping your Beasts in the budded Brooms.
And when the shining Sun laugheth once,
You deemen, the Spring is come at once.
Tho gin you, fond Flies, the Cold to scorn,
And crowing in Pipes made of green Corn,
You thinken to be Lords of the Year:
But eft, when ye count you freed from Fear,
Comes the breme Winter with chamfred Brows,
Full of Wrinkles and frosty Furrows,
Drerily shooting his stormy Dart,
Which cruddles the Blood, and pricks the Heart.
Then is your careless Courage accoyed,
Your careful Herds with cold be annoyed.
Then pay you the price of your Surquedry,
With weeping, and wailing, and misery.
Ah foolish old Man, I scorn thy Skill,
That wouldst me, my springing Youth to spill.
I deem thy Brain emperished be,
Through rusty Eld, that hath rotted thee:
Or siker thy Head very totty is,
So on thy corb Shoulder it leans amiss.
Now thy self hath lost both lop and top,
Als my budding Branch thou wouldest crop:
But were thy Years green, as now been mine
To other Delights they would encline.
Tho wouldest thou learn to carol of Love,
And hery with Hymns thy Lasses Glove:
Tho wouldest thou pipe of Phillis’ Praise;
But Phillis is mine for many Days.
I wone her with a Girdle of Gelt,
Embost with Bugle about the Belt.
Such an one Shepherds would make full fain:
Such an one would make thee young again.
Thou art a Fon, of thy Love to boast:
All that is lent to Love will be lost.
Seest how brag yond Bullock bears,
So smirk, so smooth, his pricked Ears?
His Horns been as brade, as Rainbow bent,
His Dewlap as lythe, as Lass of Kent.
See how he venteth into the Wind,
Weenest of Love is not his Mind?
Seemeth thy Flock thy Counsel can,
So rustless been they, so weak, so wan.
Cloathed with Cold, and hoary with Frost,
Thy Flock’s Father his Courage hath lost.
Thy Ewes that wont to have blown Blags,
Like wailful Widdows hangen their Crags.
The rather Lambs been starved with cold,
All for their Master is lustless and old.
Cuddy, I wot thou kenst little good,
So vainly to advance thy headless Hood.
For Youth is a Bubble blown up with Breath,
Whose Wit is Weakness, whose Wage is Death,
Whose Way is Wilderness, whose Inn Penaunce,
And stoop gallant Age, the host of Grievaunce.
But shall I tell thee a Tale of Truth,
Which I cond of Tityrus in my Youth,
Keeping his Sheep on the Hills of Kent?
To nought more, Thenot, my Mind is bent,
Than to hear Novels of his devise;
They been so well thewed, and so wise,
What ever that good old Man bespake.
Many meet Tales of Youth did he make,
And some of Love, and some of Chivalry:
But none fitter than this to apply.
Now listen a while and hearken the end.
There grew an aged Tree on the Green,
A goodly Oak sometime had it been,
With Arms full strong and largely display’d,
But of their Leaves they were disaray’d:
The Body big and mightily pight,
Throughly rooted, and of wondrous height:
Whylom had been the King of the Field,
And mochel Mast to the Husband did yield,
And with his Nuts larded many Swine.
But now the gray Moss marred his Rine,
His bared Boughs were beaten with Storms,
His Top was bald, and wasted with Worms,
His Honour decay’d, his Braunches sere.
Hard by his side grew a bragging Breere,
Which proudly thrust into th’ Element,
And seemed to threat the Firmament.
It was embellisht with Blossoms fair:
And thereto aye wonted to repair
The Shepherd’s Daughters to gather Flowres,
To paint their Garlands with his Colowres;
And in his small Bushes used to shroud
The sweet Nightingale singing so loud;
Which made this foolish Breere wex so bold,
That on a time he cast him to scold,
And sneb the good Oak, for he was old.
Why standst there (quoth he) thou brutish Block?
Nor for Fruit, nor for Shadow serves thy Stock;
Seest how fresh my Flowers been spread,
Died in Lilly white, and Crimson red,
With Leaves engrained in lusty Green,
Colours meet to cloath a maiden Queen?
Thy waste Bigness but cumbers the Ground,
And dirks the beauty of my Blossoms round.
The mouldy Moss, which thee accloyeth,
My Cinamon Smell too much annoyeth.
Wherefore soon I rede thee hence remove,
Lest thou the price of my displeasure prove.
So spake this bald Breere with great disdain:
Little him answer’d the Oak again,
But yielded with Shame and Grief adaw’d,
That of a Weed he was o’er-craw’d.
It chaunced after upon a day,
The Husband-man’s self to come that way,
Of custom to surview his Ground,
And his Trees of State in compass round.
Him when the spightful Breere had espyed,
Causeless complained, and loudly cryed
Unto his Lord, stirring up stern Strife:
O my liege Lord, the God of my Life,
Pleaseth you pond your Suppliant’s Plaint,
Caused of Wrong, and cruel Constraint,
Which I your poor Vassal daily endure;
And but your Goodness the same recure,
Am like for desperate Dole to die,
Through felonous Force of mine Enemy.
Greatly aghast with this piteous Plea,
Him rested the good Man on the Lea,
And bad the Breere in his Plaint proceed.
With painted Words tho ‘gan this proud Weed,
(As most usen ambitious Folk)
His colour’d Crime with Craft to cloke.
Ah my Sovereign, Lord of Creatures all,
Thou Placer of Plants both humble and tall,
Was not I planted of shine own Hand,
To be the Primrose of all thy Land;
With flowring Blossoms, to furnish the Prime,
And scarlet Berries in Sommer-time?
How falls it then that this faded Oak,
Whose Body is sere, whose Branches broke,
Whose naked Arms stretch unto the Fire,
Unto such Tyranny doth aspire?
Hindring with his Shade my lovely Light,
And robbing me of the sweet Sun’s sight?
So beat his old Boughs my tender Side,
That oft the Blood springeth from Woundes wide:
Untimely my Flowers forced to fall,
That been the Honour of your Coronal:
And oft he lets his Canker-worms light
Upon my Branches, to work me more spight;
And oft his hoary Locks down doth cast,
Wherewith my fresh Flowrets been defast.
For this, and many more such Outrage,
Craving your Goodlyhead to assuage
The rancorous Rigour of his Might:
Nought ask I, but only to hold my Right;
Submitting me to your good Sufferaunce,
And praying to be garded from Grievaunce.
To this, this Oak cast him to reply
Well as he couth: But his Enemy
Had kindled such Coles of Displeasure,
That the good Man nould stay his Leasure,
But home him hasted with furious Heat:
Encreasing his wrath with many a threat,
His harmful Hatchet he hent in Hand,
(Alas, that it so ready mould stand!)
And to the Field alone he speedeth,
(Aye little help to harm there needeth)
Anger nould let him speak to the Tree,
Enaunter his Rage mought cooled be:
But to the Root bent his sturdy Stroak,
And made many wounds in the waste Oak.
The Axe’s edg did oft turn again,
As half unwilling to cut the Grain,
Seemed, the senseless Iron did fear,
Or to wrong holy Eld did forbear.
For it had been an antient Tree,
Sacred with many a Mystery,
And often crost with the Priest’s Crew,
And often hallowed with Holy water dew:
But sike Fancies weren Foolery,
And broughten this Oak to this Misery;
For nought mought they quitten him from
Decay, for fiercely the good Man at him did lay.
The Block oft groaned under his Blow,
And sighed to see his near Overthrow.
In fine, the Steel had pierced his Pith,
Tho down to the ground he fell forthwith.
His wondrous Weight made the ground to quake,
Th’ Earth shrunk under him, and seem’d to shake:
There lieth the Oak pitied of none.
Now stands the Breere like a Lord alone,
Puff’d up with Pride and vain Pleasance;
But all this Glee had no continuance;
For eftsoons Winter ‘gan to approach,
The blustering Boreas did encroach,
And beat upon the solitary Breere;
For now no succour was seen him neere.
Now ‘gan he repent his Pride too late,
For naked left and disconsolate,
The biting Frost nipt his Stalk dead,
The watry wet weighed down his Head,
And heaped Snow burdned him so sore,
That now upright he can stand no more;
And being down, is trode in the durt
Of Cattel, and brouzed, and sorely hurt.
Such was th’ End of this ambitious Breere,
For scorning Eld—
Now I pray thee Shepherd, tell it not forth:
Here is a long Tale, and little worth.
So long have I listened to thy Speech,
That graffed to the Ground is my Breech:
My Heart-blood is well nigh frorn I feel,
And my Galage grown fast to my Heel:
But little ease of thy leud Tale I tasted,
Hie thee home Shepherd, the day is nigh wasted.
Iddio, perche e vecchio,
Fa suoi al suo essempio.
There is a big blizzard somewhat improbably named “Jonas” hitting New York right now, so I thought I would walk around Brooklyn and get some photos of the storm. For once, there was almost no traffic, so it was like paradise, but…somehow it wasn’t quite like paradise (maybe because of the driving wind filled with stinging sheets of snow). It was, however very beautiful which I tried to capture before my lens got all wet.
This entry is really for my tropical and desert readers. I guess anyone from a temperate area knows all about storms—or anyone in the Northeast Corridor can just walk outside and look at the storm. If it were 1816 we would probably all be doomed, but sitting inside with the radiator banging and my lights blazing as I pet the cat and communicate with the world from my computer, it is sort of peaceful…at least for the moment.
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)!
This post is really the second half of yesterday’s snowstorm post. After I realized how pretty the snow in the backyard was, I decided to put on all my winter gear and walk around the neighborhood. For reasons which elude me entirely, I live in a really beautiful neighborhood (well, I know why I live here, I just don’t know how I continue to do so). The majority of the houses were built during the first twenty years of the twentieth century and they have an outstanding grace and style which modern houses lack in every way (although my landlord and I can both vouch that these magnificent old homes start to fall apart somewhat during prolonged cold weather).
I am a painter rather than a photographer, but who wants to set up an easel in a billowing snowstorm? For that matter who wants to stand on the sidewalk to paint an elegant old house? Architectural paintings are not my métier as a fine artist! However today I think the monochromatic winter landscape helped smooth out some of my weaknesses as a photographer…
Sadly, as always with my photography, I don’t feel like I really captured the dark beauty of the blizzard or the decrepit splendor of this part of Brooklyn. Still the pictures are worth looking at just to appreciate the lovely houses of Ditmas Park. Also, with any luck, we have said farewell to this sort of snowstorm for a good long time. Hopefully you are looking at these photos in the tropics or in June and the snow provides only a frisson of wintry intensity rather than weary resignation which all New Yorkers feel as the winter of 2014/2015 draws onward toward its conclusion.
It’s March! As spring takes hold across the United States, I thought I would show some pictures of my garden as the first tender shoots begin to… argh! [indecorous remarks withheld by censors] Well, OK, it looks like winter is going to be here a bit longer. I guess it’s pretty in a cold majestic way, right? We can learn to live like this with no hope or resources…or does anybody maybe want to trek south like in “The Road” and build a New New York somewhere closer to Cuba?
Well, anyway, here are some winter pictures of the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. I know it looks like something out of a darkly beautiful Russian fairytale, but I assure you, there is a dynamic city somewhere behind all of that snow and ice. We’ll check back on spring in a few weeks… In the meantime maybe read some Tolstoy and sacrifice some more sheep to the dark gods?
This is the time of year when winter has long outstayed its welcome, but no traces of spring are anywhere to be found. My garden is covered in a sheet of filthy ice and seems likely to stay that way for the conceivable future. The few spots not buried in snow or slush reveal only grim frozen mud. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain cheerful or find any beauty whatsoever in the winter, so instead of writing an actual meaningful post about real things, I have found a bunch of crazy pictures of fantasy winter gardens which do not (and probably could never) exist.
Although admittedly these paintings portray gardens wholly in the grip of winter, the picture gardens are clearly make-believe (a reassuring contrast with the actual all-too real winter just outside). These images are also pretty (which is also in contrast with the actual world).
Let your mind wonder through the whimsical topiary, frozen palaces, and strange icicle bridges of these paintings and be of good cheer. March is nearly here and spring will probably come again, even if that seems utterly impossible at present. In the meantime, I am going to get under the covers and read a book about heroes slaying frost giants and breaking the power of evil ice wizards.
Here is a painting appropriate for the grim depths of winter. This is Klosterfriedhof im Schnee (Monastery Graveyard in the Snow) painted by the melancholy master of German romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich (whose foreboding works keep appearing on this blog). The melodramatic work highlights the transitory nature of all things. All that remains of a once grand Gothic abbey is the soaring arch of the nave which hovers ghostlike in the center of the composition. Around the ruins are vast oaks reaching out broken limbs toward the church like desperate spectral worshipers. Not only are the trees ancient, gnarled, and denuded by winter, but one also senses that they are not healthy oaks (a tree surgeon would probably shake his head sadly at their prospects). The abbey grounds have been transformed into a cemetery and the monks trudge through the necropolis like tiny insects dwarfed by the desolate trees, the headstones, and the abandoned church. Monasticism was on its way out in Germany when Friedrich painted this, and it is deliberately anachronistic. The monks too may be ghosts.
There is a final meta-layer to this vanitas painting. As you have noticed, the photograph of the work is black and white. This is because it is an old photograph which was taken before the painting itself was destroyed in an American air raid on Berlin during the chaos of 1945. The lack of color suits both the composition and the theme: one imagines that Friedrich might appreciate the irony, if he were not himself gone, like everything in this painting and the painting itself.
Across the vast continent of North America temperatures have plummeted. As I write this, sub-zero winds sweep across the Great Plains. Buffalo is seemingly gone–buried beneath uncounted tons of lake-effect snow. Obviously, with all of this November cold, Americans are obsessed with one question: what happens to snakes in the winter?
Snakes live in places that get very cold during the winter, yet the poor reptiles are cold-blooded and can’t be slithering around in snow and ice. In fact, considering that their bodies become the same temperature as their surroundings, how do they avoid becoming snakecicles? What happens to them when the mercury dips?
Technically speaking, snakes (and other reptiles & amphibians who live in climes which turn cold) do not hibernate—they brumate. Brumation is a different sort of metabolic dormancy than mammalian hibernation, but there are many similarities. When reptiles go dormant, their breathing and heart rate drop to almost nil. Brumating reptiles do not eat (or produce waste)—though they wake up occasionally from their dormancy to drink water.
As temperatures dip in autumn, temperate reptiles get all Roman and they seek out a hibernaculum—a sheltered environment which protects them throughout the winter. Hibernaculums are usually deep within the ground in holes, crevices, and burrows which reach beneath the frost line. Certain species of snakes brumate together to share trace warmth. Just imagine a colony of hundreds of little garter snakes in suspended animation beneath a snow covered rock wall in that picturesque New England snowscape!
Although it is not exactly the topic of this post, amphibians and aquatic reptiles also brumate—sometimes underwater or deep within the wet mud at the very bottom of ponds and lakes! The turtles, frogs, and newts take in sufficient oxygen through their skin to stay alive in their deeply reduced metabolic state—although they occasionally wake up from their torpor and swim about. An indelible memory of my childhood is seeing some little newt swimming beneath the ice of the frozen cranberry bog which I was standing on!
When spring comes and temperatures become warm enough, the snakes depart from their underground dens and sun themselves until they have sufficient energy to become active. Of course some reptiles live in such wintry locations that they have very little summer. There are snakes (like northern rattlesnakes) which brumate 8 months out of the year! Scientists believe that this prolonged dormancy allows the snakes to live longer—like an automobile turned off in a safe garage.