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Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832.  His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies.  Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects.  For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism.  He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time.  Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings.  The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood.  The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature.  Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy).  However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods.  Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.

The Edge of the Woods (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, watercolor)

The Edge of the Woods (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, watercolor)

Well, it’s already Thanksgiving…2015 will be here before you know it. This year I’m staying in Brooklyn instead of going home to the fields and hardwood forests of Appalachia, but I’ll definitely miss visiting family, going hunting, and seeing all of the goodly farm creatures.  I probably should have organized things better, but to be frank, organization is really not my métier.  How does everybody do so well with all of these infernal lists, and applications, and invoices, and calendars, and spreadsheets? Anyway, to celebrate the holiday, here is a summertime watercolor picture of the family farm.  The trees look a bit crooked and a bit too green…but they were crooked and extremely green in real world (plus I didn’t realize I was sitting on an anthill when I first chose the location—so I was painting faster and faster).   Of course there was no wild turkey running through the painting–at least not that I could see—however they are supremely canny at blending in when they want to be (and I did find some feathers at the entrance to the forest).  The snake, chipmunk, and skulking frog are likewise inventions, although they are definitely out there in the woods.  I should really have painted an anthill: those guys were very much present!

Yes, like that...but bitier.

Yes, like that…but bitier.

I’m sorry I don’t have a November painting which show the beautiful browns, russets, and grays of the woodland.  The wild turkey would look extremely good against such a backdrop!  But the ants were bad enough—I don’t even want to think about watercolor in snow, sleet, and freezing rain…


Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!  I hope you enjoy your turkeys and have a lot to be thankful for. All of you foreign folk will have to make do with my best wishes and imagine how succulent the turkey and mashed potatoes taste.  But wherever or whoever you are, you should know that I am most thankful for my readers!  You are all the best!

Bluebells in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor.  Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light.  They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow.  In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue.  If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows.  At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.

Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.

Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore.  Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.

Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead.  Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous.  If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).

Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday  items.  The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.

Portrait of a Woman (Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt, 1628)

Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests.  Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time.  Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.

Conifers are amazing! Also happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper.

It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time.  The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.

The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees.  They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm.  Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out.  Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages.  These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out.  The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea.  In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.

Pay attention to the Trees in this Painting not the Dinosaurs (art by Jon Taylor)

This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”).  Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time).  The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers.  Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.

The Great Boreal Forests of Canada (photo by Chad Delany)

Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans.  They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean.  They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).

Contemporary Araucaria Forest in South America (photo by Garth Lenz)

The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers.  The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies).  Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp.  In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process.  The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life.  It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger.  They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.

A Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023