Tag Archives: Nature

Ice Melt

Yesterday was one of those wonderful winter days when it wasn’t too cold, all of the old dirty snow was coated with a fresh dusting of new, and the sun occasionally peeked out of the light gray sky to transform the trees into glistening statues. Against the light-gray and white backdrop, contrasts were everywhere: I love the contrast of warm brick and cool snow/ice especially, and that can be found anywhere and everywhere in Salem. That dark, gothic, “colonial brown/black” and white looks pretty cool too. The light was so changeable: a bright vignette one moment could be a stark one in the next.

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In the middle of the afternoon, you could see and hear ice melting everywhere, including the ice sculptures assembled for the annual “Salem’s So Sweet ” chocolate and ice sculpture festival last weekend–a record 25 this year. Winnie the Pooh looked so woeful, melted and forlorn in front of the Museum Place Mall, that I couldn’t even take his photograph (you can see a portfolio of all the ice sculptures, in the day and night, here). Some of the hardier statues were still holding their shape, but alas, not poor Pooh.

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A February Day in Salem, 2017.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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Drawing down the Moon

One artist whose work I have admired for quite a while but never really knew how to contextualize in a topical or thematic way is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). He seems to be one of those people who was not of his time. I guess you would call him a Victorian artist, but he reacted against his dynamic age by creating rather romanticized, even primitivized (if that is a word) landscapes and pastoral scenes, in several mediums. I find much of his work–particularly his early work– very appealing yet hard to pin down: some of his paintings look and feel as if they could date from either the early seventeenth century or the late nineteenth. The monochromatic drawings which he called “blacks” (the first two images below) look strikingly modern to me, and deliberately designed to illustrate the effects of moonlight. I was looking and thinking about the Harvest Moon over the past few nights and suddenly one of these popped into my mind. So I looked up his works at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few other places, and found that my memory was correct: this was a man who could really draw (down) the full moon–and its crescent counterparts as well. The then-nineteen-year-old’s biblical inscription on the last drawing below is both timeless and timely: The / moon / also to / rule by night / for his mercy / endureth / for ever. Thou crownest / the year / with thy / goodness.

The Harvest Moon: Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene' c.1831-2 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, Nocturnal Landscape with Full Moon and Deer, c. 1829-30. Victoria & Albert Museum

 

Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, Coming from Evening Church,  1830. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star,1830.  British Museum

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1833. Yale Center for British Art

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Samuel Palmer,Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep, 1850( Etching; second state of five). Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Celebration, c. 1824 (Leaf 20, ink drawing from a sketchbook). Victoria & Albert Museum


Searching for a Spring Wine

May–my favorite month of the year, representing the end of the school year, high time for gardening, that perfect shade of soft spring green, my anniversary, and a kind of wistful merriment which is actually more academic than experiential–because I’m generally too busy in May to engage in such merriment. But I always feel like the need to find a celebratory drink to toast to the spring, and the summer to follow. The traditional beverage is May Wine (Maiwein), which I have made on several occasions: a sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff and a few other additions. My sweet woodruff has yet to really appear, much less bloom, so I don’t think that’s going to work this year. So I went backwards in time and beverage books looking for something new/old, beginning with George Edwin Roberts’ Cups and their Customs (1863), which has a fantastic title page but not much else.

Spring Wine Cups and Their Customs

Then I went way back to the sixteenth century and a favorite “receipt” book, Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell (parts one and two): here there are medicinal waters but nothing to accompany May merriment. In the Elizabethan age, that would be left to a host of imported wines, I think: malmsey, sack, claret, canary, brandy. Heavy, sweet wines which are not appropriate for Spring in any case. Jump forward to the mid-seventeenth century and a trio of popular “celebrity” cookbooks featuring the recipes of Charles I’s exiled and widowed Queen Henrietta Maria, ostensibly penned by her personal chef: The Queens Closet Opened. Being Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery, A Queen’s Delight; or, the Art of Preserving, Candying and Cookery, and The Compleat Cook, all first appearing in 1655. I looked through a later, lovely digitized edition of A Queen’s Delight at the Beinecke Library at Yale and found several fruity “country wines”: raspberry looks good, “water of time for the passion of the heart” interesting.

Queens Delight Yale Bodleian Cover

Queens Delight Yale Bodleain

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Queens Delight 5 Yale

Over the course of the seventeenth century, Englishmen (and women too, I assume) were realizing that their dependence on imported foreign wines was not in their personal or national interests and searching for domestic substitutes. A succession of tracts appeared encouraging the planting of orchards and providing recipes for cider, perry, and a host of fruit wines. One of the most influential of these publications was John Worlidge’s Vinetum Britannicum: Or, a Treatise of Cider, and Such other Wines and Drinks that are extracted from all manner of Fruits Growing in this Kingdom (1676). As its title page illustration suggests, this is a rather practical publication: I really don’t have the inclination to make cider but perhaps I could buy some and doctor it up?

Spring Wine Folger

Worlidge

So that idea brought me to one of my favorite modern books:  Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that create the World’s Great Drinks. Two of Stewart’s recipes could be candidates for my “toast to spring” drink: cider cup, an adapted version of medieval dépense made by combining hard cider with fruits and ginger beer (or ale), and Kir Normand, in which crème de cassis is mixed with cider. Or I could just pick up one of Salem’s own Far from the Tree ‘s seasonal ciders and leave it at that!

Drunken Botanist

Cider Collage

Buy Local; or Why invent the Wheel?


Searching for Castle Hill

When I do not walk to work down Lafayette Street, I drive down Jefferson Avenue through a neighborhood called Castle Hill, which has neither a castle or a hill. I’m not sure it ever had a castle–nineteenth-century antiquarians assert that the great Nanapashemet, majestic leader of the Pawtucket confederation of tribes before the arrival of the Old Planters, maintained some sort of “castle” in this area, but I don’t know if this can ever be verified or if it is the source of the place-name. Much later, this land was owned by the (almost) equally royal Derby family of Salem, who maintained a vast farm to sustain and complement their city properties.The great diarist (and gossip) the Reverend William Bentley tells us about a walk in early June of 1809 in which he passed to Castle Hill upon which Mr. E. H. Derby has erected a small summer house of two small square stories, the upper of smaller dimensions, in the Italian style. It wants the grandeur of the former house which occupied this space [was this the castle? It didn’t last long in any case–destroyed in the “Great September Gale” of 1815]. He has shut up the old road by Forest river road & opened a new road, over a New Bridge finished last year, leading to the Mansion House upon the road to Marblehead. The Garden is extensive and well arranged, without any unnatural or useless ornaments. The old Farm House at the foot of Castle Hill is in a state of decay. At this season the hill & fields are alive…….So castle or not, there was certainly a hill, surrounded by Derby farmland and pastures, including the “Great Pasture”, bounded by Mill Pond, over which one could look north to Salem the town, almost a separate town altogether. This perspective is illustrated by two great steroeviews from the 1870s and 1880s, both taken from Castle Hill.

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Castle Hill Farms

Stereoviews by Moulton and Fogg from the 1870s and 1880s; paintings of Pickman and Derby farms (Corné) from the early 19th century; Northeast Auctions and Historic New England.

Castle Hill is referred alternatively to the “Great Pasture” or the “Salem Pastures” all the way up to the turn of the twentieth century (and even after) but changes are coming, ushered in by the Boston and Maine Railroad, the filling-in of Mill Pond, and the leveling of the hill by the Massachusetts Broken Stone Company, which also maintained a quarry in this pastoral realm for a while. In his 1894 article entitled “Some Localities around Salem” Henry Mason Brooks of the Essex Institute opined that I dislike to see these old localities disappear, but change will come and we must make the best of it. If you compare the Salem Atlases of 1874, 1897, and 1911 you do see a changing landscape and streetscape in Castle Hill, as members of the growing French Canadian population of Salem moved into the area with the foundation of Sainte-Anne Parish in 1901: this church, which burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt over the next few years, remains the center of Castle Hill. A decade later, the 1912 annual report of Salem’s first planning commission identified Castle Hill as the future of Salem: The great area comprising the Salem Pastures may be made into splendid home sites with magnificent views, and winding roads with good grade can readily be built when the proper time comes. It is here that Salem must develop if it is to have the future which we believe its traditions justify, and the business demands. Much more housing did indeed follow, but large parts of the pasture and woodland were preserved later in the form of Highland Park/ Salem Woods and Olde Salem Greens. And if you drive off Jefferson Avenue just a few feet, you can see the rocky remains of the hill anywhere and everywhere.

Castle Hill Map 1897

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Holding the Sun

I suppose I should be writing about the (super)moon, but yesterday I became captivated by the sun: not the real sun, but a stylized image of a sun in the hands of a “medieval” king on a very cool chair by the twentieth-century Italian architect and designer Paolo Buffa. Said chair, with its mate, was featured in the pages of T: the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, in an article on French designer Vincent Darré’s whimsical Paris apartment. There’s always something that catches my eye in this well-curated periodical, and this weekend it was the Buffa chair, or more particularly the image on the back of the chair: I tried to find its source–to no avail; I suppose Buffa must have sketched it himself–it looks “traditional” and “modern” at the same time, like many of his designs.

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The Buffa chair in Mr. Darré’s study, in multiples: photograph by François Halard for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I love this chair! I want this chair! But I imagine it’s well outside of my price range (a pair of much less distinct chairs is priced at $5500 here), so after considering the style for a while I moved on to the substance. Because of its obvious splendor, the sun has been utilized by kings and queens projecting their power and magnificence from time immemorial and all areas of the world. The sun is generally utilized as a visual reference–either as accessible symbol or allegorical emblem–but it is actually held, or brought to earth, surprisingly seldom. It takes bravado to do that, like that exhibited characteristically by the Sun King, Louis XIV. From early on in his reign he utilized the sun in myriad ways: basking in its beams, driving its chariot, holding and eventually evolving into it. He was identified as the sun by both his supporters and his enemies–among them the persecuted and exiled Huguenots of France who projected him as a sun-inquisitor following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sun King Ballet Costumer 1660s

Sun King Protestant Perspective Nantes

Sun King Indictments LC

Louis XIV  in the costume of The Sun King in the ballet ‘La Nuit’ c.1665; Protestant caricature of King Louis XIV as inquisitor, illustration from ‘Les Heros de La Ligue ou La Procession monacale, conduite par Louis XIV, pour la conversion des protestants de son royaume’, Paris, Chez Pere Peters, a l’Enseigne de Louis Le Grand, 1691; Calendar of Indictments against Louis XIV, 1706, Library of Congress.

But sun symbolism was not always so straightforward, and certainly not in the seventeenth century, when it could represent not only a king and his mastery of all before him, but also faith and reason: the light of both spiritual and scientific understanding. In the very important emblem book of Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), the sun goes dark when held in the hand of a philosopher who has abandoned his faith for false theories while conversely another woman–from a bit later in the century, after Galileo’s very public defense of heliocentrism–holds the sun-light of understanding in her hand.

Sun Emblem

“Lacking Light”, Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), Glasgow University Emblems website; A woman holds a sun in her hand; representing the faculty of understanding. Engraving by T. Jenner [?], c. 1650, Wellcome Library, London.


Blue Moons

Today offers a great opportunity to widen my focus a bit and celebrate the appearance of the Blue Moon of 2015. These “extra” seasonal full months, the 13th full moon of a calendar year, happen about every three years: our last blue moon appeared in the summer of 2012 and we won’t see another one until 2018. These occasions are a perfect examples of how man and nature are seldom in sync: the creation of the calendar created the blue moon, which is apparently never really blue unless there some even more unusual astronomical conditions are present. It is always nice to wonder, and be reminded that Nature is our master and will not be boxed in by man’s organization of time. Cultural representations of the blue moon all focus on its rarity: “once in a blue moon” the earth is cast in a new/blue light and anything can happen.

Blue Moon Poster

Blue Moon Barbier 1928

Blue Moon Kingman MFA

Lunar Rocket Squires

Metropolitan Printing Co. poster c. 1906, Library of Congress; Ball Under the Blue Moon, Georges Barbier illustration for ‘Fetes Galantes’ by Paul Verlaine, 1928; “Blue Moon” by Dong Kingman, 1942, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frank Ward, Blue Moon over Wolverhampton, 1958, Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; “Lunar Rocket” furnishing fabric by Eddie Squires (amazing! celebrating Apollo 11), 1969, Victoria & Albert Museum.


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