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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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A persimmon is a berry which grows on a persimmon tree, a group of species within the larger group Diospyros.  The Diospyros trees are part of the majestic ebony family, and indeed persimmon trees are likewise noted for their hard, dense, elegant wood. The Diospyros are widespread trees, and native species of persimmon can be found in East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Philippines, and North America.

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Persimmon berries (or fruit, as people call them) are an excellent source of dietary fiber, manganese, and beta-carotene (which people are always banging on about, but which I think is overrated).  They do not otherwise contain significant nutrients…except perhaps sugars (once they have been sufficiently ripened or bletted).  Unripe persimmons are astringent and somewhat indigestible. Indeed, green persimmons are noted for sometimes causing bezoars in humans who eat lots of green persimmons–the unripened flesh polymerizes into a woody ball which traps other food materials.  These horrifying lumps can necessitate surgery (although apparently coca-cola dissolves them).

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Persimmon trees are rugged and grow fast.  Not only do their blossoms emerge after their leaves, which protects the buds from frost, they can also survive in polluted or unfavorable situations.  My grandfather had a garden and a fruit orchard next to the Chesapeake Bay.  The East Coast is slowly (or maybe not-so-slowly) receding into the ocean and the persimmons lived shockingly close to the saltwater until Hurricane Fran knocked them down in 1996.  Throwing a football around while running across the slippery rotting fruit is my foremost persimmon memories, although I have also drunk the Korean spicy punch called sujeonggwa (and I found it delightful).  Maybe I should try making a persimmon pie!

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Additionally there is a beautiful autumnal orange color named after persimmon. It is a mid-tone orange with hints of red, almost the same hue as senior republicans, but slightly darker with woody brown notes. I like to write about seasonally appropriate colors, and I can hardly think of a hue more suited to early November (unless it is some sort of russet or woodland gray).

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Hollow (Katie Paterson, 206, wood)

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 2016, wood)

A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy.  The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft.  But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth.  The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.

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“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol.  It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together.  Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.

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Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct.  There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens.  There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando.  There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike.   There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.

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The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it).  We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals.  The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity.  The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.

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magnificent adult Peltogyne purpurea tree (photo by Reinaldo Aguilar)

magnificent adult Peltogyne purpurea tree (photo by Reinaldo Aguilar)

Imagine a huge tropical tree with a heart of deep purple. OK—you don’t have to imagine it. Such trees exist: they are the Peltogyne genus of flowering trees. The Peltogyne are native to Central and South America. They are part of the larger Fabaceae family–the bean family–a vast family of plants which are extremely important to humankind. The beans and legumes make up subsistence food for much of the world’s population and are instantly familiar…but it is hard to see the family resemblance between a little bean runner and a purpleheart tree. The latter grows to heights of up to 30–50m (120–150 ft) tall and can have trunk diameters of up to 1.5 meters (5 feet). Only in the pod-like seed is there a ready family resemblance (at least to laypeople like me).

Agerminating purpleheart bean...er seed (Reinaldo Aguilar)

Agerminating purpleheart bean…er seed (Reinaldo Aguilar)

Purpleheart is one of the hardest and stiffest woods in the world. The heartwood cures into a rich purple hue of great beauty. The trees are coveted by woodworkers (even though craftsmen need razor sharp implements of hardened steel or carborundum to work the obdurate wood). As you can imagine this has put great pressure on the wild trees and some species are now endangered.

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Here are some pieces made from purpleheart wood. The wood is ideal for bows, gears, gun handles, tools, and any other application which requires hard wood which does not deteriorate, however because of its rarity and prohibitive price it is generally only seen in small accents and art pieces. If you are lucky enough to have an item made of purpleheart you should treat it carefully. Exposure to ultraviolet light causes the purple to deepen to an opaque medium brown (although it is still pretty and just as hard).

Purpleheart recurve bow (by bowyer for "Lumberjocks")

Purpleheart recurve bow (by bowyer for “Lumberjocks”)

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) photo by Steve Berliner

Judging by its name alone, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) sounds a little bland but it is actually one of the most colorful little waterfowl of North America. The male wood duck in particular is covered with iridescent green and red feathers which are grouped apart by lovely white and black demarcation lines.  In addition, male wood ducks have bright red eyes, orange beaks, yellow feet and white bellies.  The female wood duck is colored more subtly but is also very beautiful, as explained in a quote from artist and conservationist Robert Bateman who states, “the subtlety and form of the females display a classic elegance which suggests the wild and vulnerable wooded wetlands of this world.”

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

Wood ducks measure 47 to 54 cm (19 to 21 in) in length.  They feed on acorns, seeds, and berries from the land and on aquatic invertebrates and water weeds when on water.  Not only are they omnivores, but they can swim, dive, run, and fly quite well.  Wood ducks are close relatives of the equally beautiful mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) of East Asia—the two species must have shared a Northern ancestor which lived near the dividing lines between the great continents.

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

 

The wood duck’s plumage is so lovely and vibrant that the species went into dreadful decline in the late nineteenth century as a result of the millinery industry (which was converting all the male ducks into ladies’ hats). Fortunately, today people do not set such high esteem by fancy hats. Additionally, conservation efforts have been adding to the ducks’ habitat (as have beavers, which, when spreading back to traditional habitats, create ponds where the ducks live) and waterfowl enthusiasts have been building little duck houses to help the ducks breed and nest.  Careful stewardship of hunting permits has kept duck hunters as avid partners in duck restoration and the wood duck is slowly regaining its (webbed) foothold as a part of the wild and quasi-wild places in North America.

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.

One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space.  Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects.  Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.

Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist.  His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery.  The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects.  Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.

The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (M.C. Escher, 1935, wood engraving)

The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”.  The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death.  Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.

Another World (M. C. Escher, 1947, colored woodcut)

The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world.  The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements.  Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity.  Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above.  A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer.  Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea.  Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points.  A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.

Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in.  The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery.  Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.

Brackenbury Stove

Winter is a season when it is best to be reading a book beside a hot stove.  Not only are stoves appealing because they are hot–most wood stoves and fire places are also designed to look good. Wood-burning stoves made of cast-iron are among the last devices regularly manufactured in classic gothic-revival shapes (perhaps because the industry is small and specialized enough to charge premium prices for elegance).  Many of these stoves appear as though they loaded fuel into themselves and then walked out of the nineteenth century on little cast-iron legs.

To get through the winter (while simultaneously adding to Ferrebeekeeper’s “Gothic” category), here is a gallery of attractive gothic stoves.  Some of these are classic stoves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a surprising number are on sale now.

Four o'clock stove (ca. 1840-1860)

Gothic Fire Basket

Carron Gothic Revival Cast Fireplace

Handmade green gothic chimenea

Little Cottage Stove by Country Kiln

Dimplex Compact Electric Stove

Dimplex Rectory Fire Stove

Gothic Revival Mantle from Strawberry Hill Manor

GM Iron Antique Stove

Jotul F100 multifuel stove

Lady Gay Parlor Stove (ca. 1870s)

Panadero Gothic 400 Stove

Red Wolsey Stove

Warmland Gothic Multifuel

There is something surprisingly comforting about these stoves.  Just looking at them makes one think of warmth, shelter, and relaxation. But, with their stern arches, angular faces, and red flames, they also seem hungry, sinister, and hot.  This odd juxtaposition must go back a long way for humans who have bedded down beside wood fires for thousands of generations as we crept further into lands too cold for our tropical blood.

These pictures are good for showing the sculptural/architectural beauty of these various stoves, but they are not quite as good at evoking the proper feeling of warmth and security.  To get that sense you should imagine a dark shadowy study with the warm orange glow of embers cast across the room.  Outside the wind howls over frozen forests and fields of ice but you don’t have to go out there.

Jøtul F 500 Oslo non-catalytic clean burn woodstove

Of course you might be reading this from some southern clime, in which case you don’t need to worry about winter’s chill at all. Have a big tropical drink and go to the beach.  You can sit in the sun and reflect on how much I envy you.

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