A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Methuselah Lives

Christ Leading the Patriarchs to Paradise, circa 1480
by Bartolomé Bermejo.  Image courtesy of The Web Gallery of Art.

No, not the biblical patriarch who lived to be 969 years old.  We know he has passed.  Besides, he's a piker compared to his namesake, whose whereabouts are sadly being kept a secret.  The Methuselah I'm talking about is a 4,800 year old Great Basin bristlecone pine.  It lives somewhere in the White Mountains of eastern California, in the Methuselah Grove in Inyo National Forest's "Forest of the Ancients", surrounded by other oldtimers.

The Methuselah Walk in Inyo County.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Its exact location is kept secret to protect it against vandalism, or being loved too much.  That's the sad part, because it is true that there are people out there who would relish a chance to remove a "souvenir" from or destroy a tree that was a sapling when the pyramids in Egypt were being built.  It also survived atomic bomb tests only 100 miles away in Nevada.

Could this be Methuselah?

Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlan took samples from the tree in 1957.  They estimated that it germinated in 2832 BCE, which makes it the oldest known living tree in the world.  There was another bristlecone pine that was 4844 years old when it was accidentally destroyed in 1964, named Prometheus.

Or maybe this one?

It was originally thought that a tree that could live that long must live in the perfect environment.  But the tree lives in an extreme elevation in an area with fierce winds and patches of soil.  Says something about how one deals with adversity.

This one is a possibility.

These bristlecone pines are amazing.  One would think that they were towering giants, but due to the harsh environment and poor soil, they have adapted but not grown large.  It is estimated that they only put on an inch per century to their girth.

So is this one.

Each tree in the Ancient Forest is at least 4,000 years old.  Methuselah has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest tree.  The forest service has only hinted that Methuselah is one of the trees on the trail...

Except where noted, all images courtesy of geocachers

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Royal Vegetable

Image courtesy of Muffet/Wikipedia.

The Germans have a word for it - "königliche Gemüse" - which means "royal vegetable".  It is rumored that there is a 3,000 year old Egyptian frieze with asparagus, but hours of searching for an image have been unfruitful.  The first written mention of it was circa 150 BCE where it was addressed with much reverence by Marcus Porcius Cato.  In the 2nd century CE, the physician, surgeon, and philosopher Galen described it as cleansing and healing.

An asparagus lover's dream.  Image courtesy of RyanFreisling/Wikipedia.

The oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius's 3rd century CE De re Coquinaria, Book III, has a recipes for cooking asparagus.  (Click here for a look at patina de asparagis frigida in English.)  There's been a lot of conjecture about Apicius, but there is agreement that no one named Apicius wrote this book.  Apparently in the 90s BCE, a Roman named Apicius was a lover of luxury and lavish entertainment, and outdid himself with his feasts.  His name became synonymous with gourmand, and was taken by Marcus Gavius Apicius of the 1st century CE who had similar tastes.

A 1709 Dutch edition printed by Martin Lister.
Image courtesy of Kansas State University.

The name became immortalized in Roman literature, and thus this first cookbook was attributed to Apius, but what that meant to contemporaries was gourmet, foodie, or even glutton, not a specific person.  It is sometimes attributed to Caelius Apicius, an invented name from the words "API CAE" on the heading of one of the manuscripts.  Recipes for asparagus, then a food consumed by the wealthy, were included.

Frontispiece of the above manuscript, courtesy Kansas State U.

In early times it was both a delicious and much sought vegetable and a medicinal food, due to its diuretic properties.  Asparagus has always been rather infamous for its "filthy and disagreeable Smell in the Urine", as French scholar Louis Lemery wrote in 1702.  The odor is caused by methylmercaptan, which is excreted through urine.  But not everyone can smell it.  The conclusion of a 2010 study published in the Oxford Journal Chemical Senses found that while most people secrete the compound, only 22% have the genes to smell it.

Three kinds of asparagus at a Boston market.  White in the rear, green in the
center, and "bath asparagus" in front.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There's not much record of it in the Middle Ages, and it didn't show up in print until circa 1100 CE as an herb.  In 1565 it appeared in a catalog of plants in a German prince's garden where it was referred to as "delightful fare for lovers of food".  In the 17th century asparagus raises its spear again.  Once the food of the nobility, it became available to the middle class.

German botanical illustration from 1885.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Known as "spargel" in German, asparagus season or "Spargelzeit" is a big event. Some towns, including Abensberg, Schwetzingen, and Schrobenhausen, sponsor competitions, seminars, and tours.  Every restaurant will have several asparagus dishes on their menus, and people eat it as much as they can afford.

Schrobenhausen's Asparagus Museum.  Image courtesy Schrobenhausen.de.

Schrobenhausen, in Bavaria, is the site of a year-round asparagus museum. Founded in 1985 by a town councilman, Dr. Klaus Englert, it occupies three floors of a 15th century tower.  The ground floor is devoted to traditions of asparagus farming and the history of the European asparagus market.

Ground floor exhibit.  Image courtesy Schrobenhausen.de.

The first floor has displays of dishes and recipes, and the second floor includes paintings from Dutch and Flemish Schools.  The various exhibits include advertising, agriculture, art, conservation, curiosities, decorations, gastronomy, history, literature, medical and pharmaceutical science, and table decorations.

Spargelzange, or asparagus tongs, by Peter Carl Faberge, 1890, are part of
the museum's collection,  Image courtesy Schrobenhausen.de.

Asparagus is a spring vegetable and a flowering perennial.  It is native to most of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.  And I will share with you one of my quick and tasty recipes for asparagus:

Also in the museum is this painting Springtime by Sonja McBesch, 1984.
Image courtesy of Schrobenhausen.de.

   Asparagus Ravioli Pie

1 package frozen cheese ravioli (or homemade if you wish)
3 eggs
1 can condensed cream of asparagus (or mushroom, if you prefer) soup
1 small bundle fresh asparagus, chopped into small pieces
sliced or shredded mozzarella, to cover

Set oven to 350º.  Boil 1/2 package of the ravioli.  In the meantime grease a 9" pie pan.  Beat the three eggs, then slowly add the soup (do not add liquid to it) until it's blended and creamy.  Toss in the chopped asparagus.

When the ravioli are al dente, drain them and let cool enough that you can handle them easily.  Line bottom and sides of pie plate with them.  Pour egg/soup/asparagus mixture over the ravioli.  Top with mozzarella.  Bake for 45".  

You can refrigerate it once it has been put together.  I always make two at once, but the second one never lasts 24 hours.  You can also add other vegetables to it.  I often add mushrooms, sometimes zucchini or yellow squash.  I also have made a bigger, two-layer pie, splitting the egg/soup mixture to cover both layers (and adding mozzarella to both layers).  

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Artist? Surgeon? Bookman?

Brian Dettmer has a thing for books...and other media that he feels is going by the wayside.  His mind works in mysterious ways, and like a book archaeologist, he digs and carves his way through a book's physical body searching for treasure.

He believes the book as a physical form of information is ending, and a lot of history gets lost in the transition.  Since the book's intended function has waned, new roles for it emerge.  He recontextualizes books, maps, tapes, and similar media, creating new modes of expression.

He often begins with a book and seals its edges, creating an enclosed vessel that's pure potential.  Working with his instruments - knives, tweezers, and surgical tools - he cuts into the surface and dissects it, one page at a time.

Nothing within his creations is relocated or implanted, things are just removed. Alternate meanings are exposed.  He sees his works as collaborations between the item, its original creator(s), and himself.

Originally from Chicago, Dettmer now lives in Atlanta.  He has shown his work throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Europe, and is represented by galleries on both sides of the pond.  His work an be found in private and public collections in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

This booklover doesn't think that the physical book as a source of information or entertainment is dead.  There is a tactile pleasure in holding something that tickles your mind.  But there is room in my world for books for reading, and books for art, and Dettmer's work offers me visual pleasure.

All images courtesy of the artist.
Take a look at his website to see more of his work.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"The Sistine Chapel of the Glass World"

That's what Susan Rossi-Wilcox, curatorial associate at the Harvard Museum of National History, calls The Glass Flowers, a collection of botanical models used for teaching.  These highly realistic glass botanical models are more formally known as The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants.

Image courtesy of curious expeditions/flickr.

Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf, were commissioned by the founder of Harvard's Botanical Museum, Dr. George Lincoln Goodale.  Dr. Goodale wanted them for students, since real plants have limited value for teaching because of their seasonal nature and short flowering periods.  At the time, only wax or papier-maché models were available, and these did not serve the purpose well.

Leopold Blaschka
Rudolf Blaschka
Images of both men courtesy of Journal of Antiques.

Dr. Goodale was familiar with the Blaschkas' work because they had a business making glass models of invertebrates, some of which were in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.  But while the glass flowers are unique and were specially made for Harvard, the invertebrates were mass manufactured and once sold through Ward's Natural Science Establishment catalog.  Some of them sold for only 50¢, which in the late 1800s was considered expensive.

Ercolania Pancerii (nudibranch), a relative of the jellyfish.
Image courtesy Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
A jellyfish.

Besides the Blaschka invertebrates at Harvard, there are others at the Boston Museum of Science, the Corning Museum of Glass, Cornell University, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History, just to name some places in the U.S.  These models were important before the advent of underwater photography and the development of decent facilities capable of housing creatures for study.

A sea anemone.  Image courtesy the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Octopus.  Image courtesy of Jon Chase/Harvard Education Gazette.

The Blaschkas, who came from a long line of glassmakers and jewelers going back to the 15th century, initially signed a ten-year contract, and agreed to produce flowers half-time so they could continue their invertebrate business.  They ended up producing glass flora from 1887 until 1936 from their studio in Hosterwitz, Germany (near Dresden); Rudolf carried on the project after his father died.  The project was financed by Mary Lee Ware, a former student, and her mother Elizabeth Ware as a memorial to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware.

A glass bouquet given to the Wares by Leopold in 1889.
Image courtesy of Journal of Antiques.

The ten-year period that had been agreed upon made the selection of plants to replicate a serious consideration.  Some plants were sent to the Blaschkas to be cultivated in their own garden for reference.  Many of the plants on the list were in nearby botanical gardens and greenhouses.

Panic grass.
Echinocreus Engelmannii of the cactus family.
This image and one above from Journal of Antiques.

But eventually the Blaschkas needed to see and study tropical plants, so in 1892 Rudolf traveled to the Caribbean and various parts of the U.S. to view plants, make drawings and notes on colors, and collect what he could.  He made a second trip in 1895, but the trip was made short by the death of his father.

Image courtesy of Curious Expeditions/flickr.
Devil's bit with butterfly.  Image courtesy of above.

While some of the models are made of colored glass, many are "cold painted" with a thin wash of colored glass or metal oxide applied and heated until fused.  The painted ones are varnished.  Some of the parts are glued together, and some of the stems have wire armatures within.

A glass banana.

The pieces have suffered over time.  Vibrations from the 120,000+ visitors annually, and ultraviolet light (despite efforts to block it) have damaged and stressed some pieces.  There's also been some problem with glass corrosion, a process caused by a problem in the chemical composition of the original
glass formula, usually an inadequate amount of calcium oxide.

Bottle with glass disease.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Glass disease, as this is called, occurs when a piece is exposed to higher levels of humidity.  This causes the alkalis in the glass to remain water soluble, and the salts hydrate and leach out of the glass.  Once the humidity is lowered, they form a crust.  They have undergone restoration, and are displayed in controlled humidity settings.

Glass disease on the surface of a glass
leaf from a model of an apple branch.
Image courtesy of Kris Snibbe/ Harvard
Education Gazette.

There are approximately 4,400 of the Blaschka glass flowers.  The Museum has organized displays, including a special section on plants and insects showing the different processes of pollination.  The work of the Blaschkas is still touted to surpass all modern models.  Their glass pieces are an amazing instance of Victorian craftsmanship.

Image courtesy Curious Expeditions/flickr.
Unless otherwise noted, image courtesy of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Opening Up the Known World to the Known World

Elias Ashmole's coat of arms, 1925, in a window of the
Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Combine acquisitiveness with perseverance, ambition, and wealth, and you have Elias Ashmole.  This son of a saddler lived a life of varied experiences, a lot of learning, and the desire to share.  It is thanks to his efforts that we have the first public museum in the world - the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, 1683.

Oxford began displaying objects with the University Art Collection, which began modestly in the 1620s with some portraits and objects of curiosity.  It was based in the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian Library.  One of the curiosities was Guy Fawkes' lantern.  Jacob's Coat of Many Colors was supposedly included, but is now lost.  (?!?)  In 1636 and 1657 coins and medals were added.  In the 1660s and 1670s more portraits were added, then historical paintings,  landscapes, and scenes of contemporary life.

Guy Fawkes' lantern.

In 1677 Ashmole donated his collections on the condition that a suitable building be erected to house them and that they would be available to the public.  The first building - the Ashmolean Museum - opened in May of 1683.

The "Old Ashmolean", now the Museum of the History of Science.

The collections outgrew their space, and there were many sculptures donated that could not be shown.  In 1845 a new edifice was built that housed both the Ashmolean and the Taylor Institution, which accommodates the modern languages department.  The museum contains fine art and archaeological treasures, including the bequest of Sir Arthur Evans of Minoan fame (and the Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884-1908).

The "New" Ashmolean Museum.  Image courtesy www.ashmolean.com.

The present Ashmolean was created in 1908, and combines the collections from the original Ashmolean with those from the aforementioned University Art Collection.  Some of the paintings from the Bodleian were included.  It was significantly remodeled between 2006 and 2009 (adding two floors), and reopened in November of 2009.

A modern staircase added in the latest remodel.

When the new edifice was built in 1845, the "Old Ashmolean" was used as office space for the Oxford English Dictionary staff.  Since 1924 the building has been used for the Museum of the History of Science, and includes early scientific instruments given to Oxford by Lewis Evans (brother of Sir Arthur Evans) featuring the world's largest collection of astrolabes.

Astrolabes image courtesy of DocBrown.com.

Ashmole himself was an alchemist and antiquarian.  He had studied at Oxford while he served as an ordnance officer for the King's forces there.  He held many military posts, but never participated in any actual fighting.  In 1669 he received a Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford.  His loyalty to his alma mater was his impetus to leave Oxford his collections.

The Alfred Jewel, an Anglo-Saxon ornament made in the reign of King Alfred
the Great in the late 9th century and discovered in 1693.  Donated to the
Ashmolean Museum by Colonel Nathaniel Palmer.

Ashmole was one of the first Freemasons in England, and was purported to possess the secret of the Philosopher's Stone.  From his writings we know that he was also a Rosicrucian.  Most likely his involvement in both groups was for social reasons, rather than religious, as he left little details about his association with either group.

Coins from the Ashmolean collection.

His published works are still considered valuable, and he preserved many works in his alchemical publications that would have been lost otherwise.  In 1650 he published Fasciculus Chemicus under the pseudonym James Hasolle.  It was an English translation of two Latin alchemical works.

Cover page of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum,
image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

His most important alchemical work was published in 1652, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an annotated compilation of alchemical poems in English.  Despite his interest in alchemy, he appears to have been a student rather than a practitioner. His last alchemical book was The Way to Bliss, published in 1658.  Said to be studied by Isaac Newton, it recommended ways to prevent illness by a good diet, moderate exercise, and enough sleep.

Close-up of the engraving from the above title page,
image courtesy of www.ashmolean.com.

There is still controversy about his motives for the Ashmolean.  John Tradescant the Elder was a gardener to various nobles, ending up as the Keeper of His Majesty's Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms for Charles I.  He had many opportunities to travel and did so, collecting mainly botanical specimens.  His son, John Tradescant the Younger followed in his father's footsteps.  In 1634 he was admitted as a freeman to the guild, the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.  He went to Virginia to gather plants, eventually taking up his father's position with the king.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger, 1652, attributed to
Thomas De Critz, image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1652, Ashmole helped Tradescant the Younger catalog the Tradescant collection, Musaeum Tradescantianum, and Ashmole published it in 1656. Tradescant the Younger left the collection to Ashmole, but his widow fought for it. The courts awarded it to Ashmole.  When the museum was built in Oxford and all the items were moved there, the Tradescant collection was significantly larger than Ashmole's.  This added fuel to the fire that Ashmole was trying to take credit away from the Tradescants and keep the glory of the collection for himself. However, much of Ashmole's collection had been previously burned in a fire.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, 17th century,
attributed to Cornelis De Neve.

Ashmole also keep notes on his life in diaries, which he planned to use for an autobiography.  It was never written, but the notes have been an important source for information on his life and times.  Two-thirds of his library was left to the Bodleian when he died, again serving as fodder to the notion that he intended the museum for the Tradescant collection rather than his own.

Linear B Tablet, circa 14th century BCE.  Donated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1910.

An interesting man who lead a busy life.  Most importantly, whatever his motives, he contrived to share what he learned - whether in books or the Ashmolean Museum - and we are richer for it.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum.