Sunday, June 27, 2010

To Learn a Fern (Aarnivalkea)

When I went out walking the other day, I brushed up against four or five different types of ferns within the space of fifty yards.

I was ready to return with my fern book and finally start learning their identities, yet I didn’t realize how little I know about ferns.

Maidenhair Fern, April 23, 2010.

I figured that the distinctive silhouettes of the fern fronds would be enough to arrive at a positive ID, but no. In many cases, you have to turn the fern and study the pattern of bumps, called sori, on the underside of the leaf.

A sorus (pl. sori) is a cluster of sporangia.

In ferns, these form a yellowish or brownish mass on the edge or underside of a fertile frond. In some species, they are protected during development by a scale or film of tissue called the indusium, which forms an umbrella-like cover.

Dicksonia antarctica. Picture taken by DanielCD on 17 May 2005. Picture is of the underside of a fern frond. It shows a fertile frond which is covered with sori (sing. sorus)

Sori occur on the sporophyte generation, the sporangia within producing haploid meiospores. As the sporongia mature, the indusium shrivels so that spore release is unimpeded. The sporangia then burst and release the spores.

The shape, arrangement, and location of the sori are often valuable clues in the identification of fern taxa. Sori may be circular or linear. They may be arranged in rows, either parallel or oblique to the costa, or randomly. Their location may be marginal or set away from the margin on the frond lamina. The presence or absence of indusium is also used to identify fern taxa.

The best time to identify ferns is when the sori are fully developed. Here’s one more description of what to look for:

Many ferns bear their spore cases (also known as sporangia, sori, or fruit-dots) on the undersides of some of the leaflets—turn over the leaves and look for small dots, often brown. Other species have separate stems devoted to holding spore cases. These structures have fertile leaves that usually look like miniature versions of the larger plant but later turn brown and curly.

Identification of many of the twice-compound species requires examining placement of spore cases; comparison of sizes, shapes, veining patterns, and numbers of leaflets; and other meticulous evaluations, which obsessive botanists usually enjoy.

Read more at Suite101: How to Identify Ferns: Primitive and Beautiful Plants of Woods and Meadows

Sori (containing spores) on the underside of a curling Polypodium fern.
Catskill Mountains, New York, USA

I had already been contemplating the fractal* quality of ferns, even before stumbling onto the bit about spore cases with leaves that resemble the larger plant.
[*Fractals being processes or images that exhibit something called self-similarity, something made up of a reduced version of itself.]

Trees and ferns are fractal in nature and can be modeled on a computer by using a recursive algorithm. This recursive nature is obvious in these examples—a branch from a tree or a frond from a fern is a miniature replica of the whole: not identical, but similar in nature.

The connection between fractals and leaves are currently being used to determine how much carbon is contained in trees.

Barnsley's fern computed using an iterated function system

I haven’t been back to the ferns, but I’ll find them in due time. I still don’t know much, but more than I did before.

Two lessons, for now.

One, when you look at a fern, you’re looking at mathematics in action.

And two, always look on the underside of the leaf!

The Great Smoky Mountains All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory reports 53 species of ferns representing the Pteridophyta division of plants (within the national park).

Finally, as if that’s not enough reason to go out and learn a fern, there’s this:

Finnish tradition holds that one who finds the "seed" of a fern in bloom on Midsummer night will, by possession of it, be guided and be able to travel invisibly to the locations where eternally blazing Will o' the wisps called aarnivalkea mark the spot of hidden treasure. These spots are protected by a spell that prevents anyone but the fern-seed holder from ever knowing their locations.

Links on ferns and fractals:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

cool it

«The Snow Man», de Wallace Stevens from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
and, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Moving Poems is billed as "the best video poetry on the web." Maybe so.

«Joy», de Robinson Jeffers from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

Though joy is better than sorrow joy is not great;
Peace is great, strength is great.
Not for joy the stars burn, not for joy the vulture
Spreads her gray sails on the air
Over the mountain; not for joy the worn mountain
Stands, while years like water
Trench his long sides. ‘I am neither mountain nor bird
Nor star; and I seek joy.’
The weakness of your breed: yet at length quietness
Will cover those wistful eyes.

And this:

Wood Worms by David Morley

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hermit Crab

I’d like to cast a more charismatic creature in the role...

...however, the hermit crab might be my personal totemic animal.

Hmmm…I'm OK with that. Might as well be!

I have a reason for contemplating the humble hermit crab – I read a story last week about hermit crabs lining up on the beach, according to size. Then, in sequence, each crab abandons its old shell and moves into the next larger one.

At first, I thought this could be a fantastic metaphor, but now I’ve learned that the ritual really happens. The biologists tell us that shell exchange can occur in various ways.

Caribbean Hermit Crab

From a recent scientific paper, Social context of shell acquisition in Coenobita clypeatus hermit crabs, by Randi D. Rotjana,b, Jeffrey R. Chabotc and Sara M. Lewis:

Examining shell behavior in a social context is critical to understanding hermit crab behavior in the wild. Synchronous vacancy chains occur after several crabs adjacent to an available vacant shell have queued in decreasing size order; as soon as the largest crab switches into the vacant shell, a rapid series of sequential shell switches takes place.

In asynchronous vacancy chains, in contrast, individual crabs encountering a suitable vacant shell will switch and later their discarded shells will be discovered and occupied by other crabs. Thus, asynchronous vacancy chains do not involve social interactions or queue formation, and sequential shell switches take place over considerably longer time periods. In both cases, vacancy chains are terminated when the last shell discarded is of such low quality (too small or damaged) that all crabs reject it.

[ link ]

But, how about a visionary effort to intervene in the ritual of hermit crabs by providing plastic shells for the hermit crabs? Elizabeth Demaray wrote about this in Futures Spring 2004, The Hand Up Project: Attempting to Meet the New Needs of Natural Life-Forms.

A strong case for synthetic housing:

The Hand Up Project
Based on what we know about the new needs of these animals in their current environment, the Hand Up Project proposes to manufacture alternative forms of housing, specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs, out of plastic. This solution offers multiple benefits. Not only will the project afford the animal badly needed additional forms of shelter, but we also contend that, by utilizing current technology, we may now be better equipped to meet the needs of this life-form than nature ever has.

Hermit Housing

The use of plastic in manufacturing these new homes is key. This material affords the crab an almost ideal dwelling. Being much lighter than calcium carbonate, these new houses do not take as much energy to carry during locomotion. Plastic is also structurally strong, which affords large areas of internal space in the new structures. This results in the greater internal volume-to-weight ratio that the crab prefers. Of additional benefit is the longevity of this material coupled with the way these crabs recycle and share their shelters. Due to the fact that plastic is non-biodegradable, these new forms may potentially outlast the life-span of the crab itself, thereby assuring many generations access to additional hand-me-down housing.

Synthetic Shell Prototypes

We acknowledge that such trans-species caregiving may in fact be a form of control. In recognition of this paradox, the new structures are aesthetically based on the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni, an Italian Fascist active in the 1930s. Physically, the design of the new forms has been tailored to the animal's needs. The structures are offered for various body sizes. The shell spiral in the middle has been eliminated, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume. Instead of this central core, the new design offers an internal flange attached to the front opening for the crab to clutch with its holding claw.

Shelter while foraging has also been considered. Similar to the hood-like structure found in a traditional shell, the new form offers an overhang for additional protection in situations where the body must be extended outside the dwelling. Color can also be adapted to the needs of the animal. The prototype houses are tinted beige, which affords the wearer maximum camouflage on many of the beaches in North America. The color can, however, be visually matched to a specific population's native environment for optimal protection.
[ link ]

Yes, despite my admiration for their trans-species caregiving, I do find something faintly disturbing about the Hand Up Project. Free-market enterprise will jump on this like a duck on a junebug: beer logos (or worse) on their plastic shells, the hermits crabs will become tiny mobile billboards.

Consider the possibilities.

It’s just not right.

Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, 17th century etching, Theodor van Thulden (1606 - 1669)
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

You can find all sorts of stories about hermit crabs. Some people in Thailand reported that the hermit crabs had retreated to the safety of higher ground well in advance of the 2004 tsunami.

In The Odyssey, Homer tells of Scylla, a monster that devours passing sailors:

...they writhed gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there at her cavern's mouth she bolted them down raw—screaming out, flinging their arms toward me, lost in that mortal struggle...

That same Scylla, of Scylla and Charybdis fame, was known as the goddess of hermit crabs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Indian Paintbrush

While the Castilleja coccinea species of Indian Paintbrush is on the “threatened” list for some states, it can be found in Western North Carolina without much difficulty.

Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea, Blue Ridge Parkway, 6/11/10

The Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-Fire) genus includes 200 species occurring mainly in the western region of the Americas. After a heated battle, the Indian Paintbrush prevailed over the Fringed Gentian to become Wyoming’s state flower in 1917.

It will absorb selenium, a potentially toxic alkaline mineral compound in the soil. Where high amounts of selenium in the soil are not present, Indian Paintbrush can be consumed in moderation in salads. For traditional healers, it was a remedy for rheumatism.

The supposed origin of the flower has inspired several versions of what has been called a Native American legend.

Children’s book artist Tomie dePaola is the author of The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush:

Little Gopher is smaller than the rest of the children in his tribe and can't keep up with those who ride, run, wrestle or shoot with bows and arrows. But, he has a talent of his own - he is an artist. When he grows older, a Dream-Vision comes to him: a young Indian maiden and her grandfather tell him that he will paint pictures of the great warriors with colors as pure as the evening sky.

Little Gopher's paintings never satisfy him because the colors are dull and dark, but he keeps trying. In the night, a voice tells him how to find paint-filled brushes; Little Gopher locates them, and they become brilliantly colored flowers known as Indian Paintbrush.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"War is a racket"

They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”
“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,”
said one conservative member, Terri Leo. “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”
- from a New York Times story on the Texas school book committee’s rewrite of history

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown — in this case a $20 billion shakedown.”
-Joe Barton, Texas Congressman (and product of the Texas educational system), apologizing to BP’s Tony Hayward, earlier today

Lone Star conservatives flexed their political muscle recently by rewriting the textbooks to be used by students in Texas and, ultimately, many other states.

Call it the Palinization of America, accelerating the dumbing-down of the already dumb. According to the new history, as revised by the Texas school book committee, Senator Joseph McCarthy was a vigilant defender of the American way of life, rather than a noxious demagogue. On the other hand, the Texans downplayed the legacy of Thomas Jefferson due to his heretical insistence upon the separation of church and state.

I guess it doesn't matter, though. People seem incapable of learning from history anyhow, given their stubborn determination to repeat it...over and over and over again. So why not make the subject as simplistic and unrealistic as an old Hollywood western?

Cowboys. Indians. Showdown at high noon...

What more do the little kiddies need to know on their way to becoming full-fledged jingoistic, xenophobic subjects of the corporate overlords?

One thing's for sure. That Texas gang won't be carving out any textbook space for one war hero from the past. When he died in 1940, the retired Major General Smedley Butler was the most decorated Marine in U. S. history. However, Butler was best known for his message, "War is a racket." He toured the lecture circuit and published a pamphlet of the same title.

In 1934 he was involved in a controversy known as the Business Plot when he told a congressional committee that a group of wealthy industrialists had approached him to lead a military coup to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Nowadays, they'd probably fling the "socialist" epithet at him for speaking out against the military-industrial complex. In fact, Butler did pen several articles for a socialist magazine, and was criticized for sharing the podium with subversives. Butler’s response?

"They told me I'd find a nest of communists here. I told them 'What the hell of it!' In 1917 the government went around drafting boys into the army; they didn't ask then what a man's politics were; they merely asked if he had a sound body and a strong back."

From Butler’s 1935 pamphlet, "War Is a Racket":

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes

A few profit – and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament conferences. You can't eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can't wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation – it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted – to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

Let the workers in these plants get the same wages – all the workers, all presidents, all executives, all directors, all managers, all bankers – yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders – everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!

The next war, according to experts, will be fought not with battleships, not by artillery, not with rifles and not with machine guns. It will be fought with deadly chemicals and gases.

Secretly each nation is studying and perfecting newer and ghastlier means of annihilating its foes wholesale. Yes, ships will continue to be built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits. And guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits. And the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturer must make their war profits too.

But victory or defeat will be determined by the skill and ingenuity of our scientists.

If we put them to work making poison gas and more and more fiendish mechanical and explosive instruments of destruction, they will have no time for the constructive job of building greater prosperity for all peoples. By putting them to this useful job, we can all make more money out of peace than we can out of war – even the munitions makers.

So...I say,

The entire book is online at

According to a recent report, we spend one million dollars to send one soldier into war for one year. Presumably, about 2 to 3% of that million covers the soldier's pay. So who pockets the other 97%? Regardless of the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who've been
feasting on the 97% are already big winners.

Let's take a closer look. is a project of OMB Watch and provides detailed information on federal contracts. Fascinating stuff and an hour well spent.

If you examine the federal contracts awarded in our own (NC 11) congressional district, the Department of Defense and other agencies associated with the military dominate the top of the list of contracting agencies. The top contractor in the district in FY2008 was Haywood County’s Wellco Enterprises. The footwear manufacturer (which has since relocated its operations) received $45,616,411.
(Link - )

Oddly enough, back in 1935, Smedley Butler took aim at the boot makers:

Take the shoe people. They like war. It brings business with abnormal profits. They made huge profits on sales abroad to our allies. Perhaps, like the munitions manufacturers and armament makers, they also sold to the enemy. For a dollar is a dollar whether it comes from Germany or from France. But they did well by Uncle Sam too. For instance, they sold Uncle Sam 35,000,000 pairs of hobnailed service shoes. There were 4,000,000 soldiers. Eight pairs, and more, to a soldier. My regiment during the war had only one pair to a soldier. Some of these shoes probably are still in existence. They were good shoes. But when the war was over Uncle Sam has a matter of 25,000,000 pairs left over. Bought – and paid for. Profits recorded and pocketed.

This brings back memories of visiting Army surplus stores in the early 1960s, filled with mountains of surplus boots!

Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address (1961) has to be one of the most prophetic speeches delivered by an American president in the past fifty years, but I don’t know if you’ll find any mention of it in the latest history books from Texas!

Ike warned:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.

But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together….
(Entire speech at )

And just this week, the New York Times reported:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

(Link - )

I think we’ve just found one trillion more reasons to “stay the course!”

Although they’ll never admit it in Texas.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


International Biodiversity Day, May 22, slipped right past without my knowing it. But I’ve not missed out completely. The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.

Then again, shouldn’t every year be the Year of Biodiversity?

I don’t know of any contemporary artist making a more eloquent and powerful statement about biodiversity than Isabella Kirkland.

Several years ago I blogged about her work, Taxa. For a real treat, you can go to and explore the Taxa paintings closely. The interactive features, online, enhance this masterpiece.

Now I’ve learned about Kirkland’s Nova series, and the painting Understory, reviewed in Seed Magazine :

Artist Isabella Kirkland’s meticulous oil paintings revisit [the] bittersweet tension between discovery and loss. Each life-size panel in her ongoing NOVA series includes dozens of species, from mammals and birds to insects and plants, all of which have been discovered by science in the past 20 years.

In many regards, the message of Understory is reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century cabinets of curiosities, rooms in which European collectors gathered rare and newly discovered specimens, arranging them in beautiful tableaux.

Understory also has much in common with the Renaissance-era Wunderkammern, or wonder cabinets, which predate curiosity cabinets and emphasized awe over taxonomy and logic. The viewer is delighted with sumptuous visual elements like shafts of stunning golden light, graceful birds and butterflies, and countless hidden treasures, including a suntiger tarantula, a green pit viper camouflaged by leaves, and a tiny Peruvian bird called Lulu’s Body-Tyrant. If these beautiful species have all just been found, the painting makes us eager to know what wonders we are yet to find.

The Nova paintings can be perused on Kirkland’s website:

In 2008, Kirkland was a recipient of the Wynn Newhouse award presented to artists with disabilities. Here’s her artist statement submitted to the awards committee:

I carefully research each of the species in my pictures before I paint them. By studying the original scientific description of the species and whatever preserved materials possible, I come to know each intimately. I make information on the evolution, economic value, food web involvement, predator/prey relationships, etc., available to viewers who wish to delve beyond the surface of the pictures. I am trying to preserve, in the most stable materials, images of biota that may not survive this next century.

My injury was caused in 2004 by a bizarre, tropical round worm that ate part of my spinal cord. Neural presentations of this organism are so rare in the United States that no doctors are aware of symptoms or treatments. I was forced to do some rapid research on the subject of neural damage from parasitic infection in humans. In the end, I developed a grudging respect for the Gnathostomatidae, the genus of my worm, which cloak themselves in the host’s own proteins in order to confound detection by the host’s immune system.

When I first began to recover from the cord injury and associated meningitis, I could barely draw a line. Four years later now, I have recovered almost full motor control of my right hand. Sadly, what I was left with is constant, 24/7, neuropathic pain in the upper right quadrant of my body with the worst sensation on the hand and wrist. Those two places feel as if they were in constant contact with a very hot pan. Some days are simply lost to fighting for control of the pain. I have no desire to use this change in my physical being as subject matter. I am very much engaged in my continued exploration of bio-diversity through the means of painted illusions, many thin layers of oil and pigment.

The most profound connection of this affliction to my work is that when I paint, I do not hurt. That creative flow-state one reaches when one’s work is going well is a sweet refuge from the constant stream of painful sensations.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tapioca Time Bomb

While cooking up some fresh-picked cherries, I dug through the back of the kitchen cabinet until I found some tapioca. Tapioca. Handy to keep around for those summer fruit pies.

Anytime I use it, though, I think about a maritime disaster involving tapioca:

Back in the summer of 1972, a 12-ton freighter was almost sunk by tapioca.

The Swiss freighter Cassarate was sailing along with a load of lumber and rubber in its upper holds when the wood caught fire. With the crew pouring water on it, it smoldered for nearly a month, but evidently no one thought this was enough of a problem to want to pull over.

Finally, the fire got going again, and the crew couldn't douse it, and the ship pulled into the docks in Cardiff, Wales, to get itself put out properly. The good Welsh firefighters gave the flaming timber a thorough hosing down, and the whole thing would have been a complete nonevent except for the other cargo in the lower holds.

All the way from Thailand, 1,500 tons of tapioca. Enough tapioca to fill a million little glass cups with pudding for the dessert case at early-bird buffets.

It had been dry and harmless, down there in the holds of the ship, but with all that water leaking down on it, it started to plump up. And the heat from the fire started to cook it. Heaven knows how many innocent people were overcome by the smell.

The cooking pudding threatened to burst the steel plates of the ship's hull, sinking the ship, fouling Cardiff Bay and endangering the lives of whatever marine life there was in Cardiff Bay in 1972. Can you imagine the horrific scene? The lumpy, glutinous slick? The dead fish? The bedraggled, glossy sea birds, limping around on the sand, too sticky to fly?

They had to get the tapioca out of the ship before it burst, but there was still all that smoking timber on top of it that would have to come out first. Could they unload the ship before it ruptured?

"It's like a huge tapioca time bomb," said a fire chief, stringing together words that had surely never been next to each other in all the previous history of the English language.

As firefighters and dock workers labored for three days to save the freighter, many questions were going unanswered. Why hadn't the ship docked sooner when the crew wasn't able to put the fire out? Why wasn't the lower hold watertight against the flooding of the upper hold? And what the hell were they going to do with several hundred truckloads of salvaged tapioca pudding? Stucco Cardiff Castle?

In the end, the crisis was averted. The firemen finally put the fire out completely, and now that it was off the stove, so to speak, the tapioca had stopped growing and threatening to overwhelm the ship and, possibly, the entire city, resulting in unimaginable loss of life and appetite.

The load of timber and rubber, which had been on its way to the U.K., was kind of crispy when they finally got it all off the boat. As for the tapioca, "It seems to have subsided but we don't know what condition it is in," a cautious spokesman for the South Wales Fire Service told the American press. Constables were no doubt standing by, prepared at any moment to control the unstable pudding with large cans of diced pineapple.

"It is bound for Rotterdam," said the spokesman, "and the Dutch will have to decide whether it can still be used or scrapped."

I'm guessing they threw a little cocoa in it and no one was any the wiser. Discount tapioca! Slightly imperfect! Bits of damp charcoal are good for you!

Either that, or somewhere in Holland is a windmill built on scrapioca, which makes very questionable fill.

The Welsh firefighters, I hope, were treated for starch inhalation and sent home to recover. The damaged Cassarate, which had behaved more like a casserole, prepared to press on to Rotterdam with a belly full of slightly overcooked and waterlogged pudding.

[Source - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ]

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Two FLOs

"I have all my life been considering distant effects and sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future."
-Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903)

"The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system."
-- Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, painted by John Singer Sargent, 1895.

In response to a post from this week, All Souls, a fellow Uwharrian spoke well of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1895, Sargent was painting the Biltmore visionaries: Olmsted, Hunt and Vanderbilt.

Looking back, I can’t believe I’ve only posted one other story on Frederick Law Olmsted, his account of a genteel scene near Asheville in the summer of 1854:

Olmsted is especially interesting for his two bookended stints in WNC. In the 1850s, FLO was a young journalist trying to understand what slavery really meant.

A younger Olmsted

Forty years later, he returned as a venerated landscape architect, with the Biltmore Estate his canvas.

I borrow liberally from the website where I found Singer’s portrait of Olmsted , the JSS Virtual Gallery -

Nice work, (and I really don’t care if it exceeds the 144 character limit that’s been set for contemporary attention spans):

Frederick Law Olmsted is widely recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost parkmaker. His first, his most loved, and in many ways he's best known work was his design of Central Park in New York city (1858-1876) with his partner Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). But he would go on to have a significant influence in the way cities and communities are built with the idea of nature and parks around us. He is one of the first to put forth the principles of the City Beautiful Movement in America. He was also one of the first to introduce the idea of suburban development to the American landscape.

"My campaign here announces itself ominously," Sargent wrote in May of 1895 when he arrived at the Biltmore to paint the venerable landscape artist and the architect Richard Morris Hunt, "— both wives prove to me that I must imagine thus that their husbands look at all like what they look like at present — totally different really . . ."

Olmsted was in very poor health -- though his use of the cane actually came from a riding accident he suffered as a younger man when he was working on Central park from which he never fully recovered.

Olmsted had been at Biltmore since February of '95. He had plans for leaving earlier but Vanderbilt had asked him to stay on so Sargent could paint him. The firm which he had built up, now had his sons working for him and his reputation was known internationally. There was very real concern about the health of the company being so tied to Olmsted Sr. The family (we now know) was in a bit of a panic and the trouble that Sargent was getting from Olmsted's wife was in weighing all these considerations.

It was far more than just vanity. Their children were working for the firm and Olmsted's reputation at being able to carry on under failing health was at risk (he was beginning to lose his mind to dementia - and would sadly, later have to be institutionalized where he eventually died) They themselves didn't understand what was happening and she didn't want a portrait of his weaker moments displayed publicly to all of Olmsted's clients and possible future clients. The livelihood of their entire family was at risk.

Sargent wouldn't have known this. No one but the closest to the family would have. Unlike Hunt's portrait, this one is a bit more successful. Still, Sargent struggles with an imagined scene -- which is something so totally foreign to his method of painting. You can see he draws inspiration from what he did with Madame Edouard Pailleron in '79 -- the use of leafs surrounding a standing figure. The forest in Olmsted's case, is imagined. The grounds at Biltmore were nothing but saplings. Still, Sargent pulls it off relatively well putting the man of trees and flower leaning on his cane (which was very much his signature) among dogwood, laurel, and rhododendron.

Fatigued, Olmsted left with his wife before the portrait was finished and his son stepped into his coat to finish modeling for Sargent. You can almost feel the frustration of Sargent in dealing with the situation. In both cases, Hunt and Olmsted, both men appear more "flat" than most of his other work, and clearly shows Sargent's inability to paint beyond what he sees.

* * *

Studying people like John S. Sargent is inspiring to be sure, but there is a certain disconnect between the reality of life that I understand and the kind of life that Sargent and people like him seem to live. Though laudable, I never could fully relate to people that knew at an early age exactly what they wanted to do in life, and with blinders on to any other distractions, could pursue their objectives with a singular of purpose and determination.

If people like Sargent are to be our only model of excellence, then there is a great number of us that are already doomed. Olmsted wasn't like that. He was one of us. In a time in history when men were often deep into what ever line of work before they were even twenty (Women? well, we won't even talk about their expectations or lack thereof), Olmsted floundered in life searching and unsure until he was well into his thirties. He suffered serious and deep periods of depression, and moments of self doubt. He was saddled with debt from one failed attempt after another (though he paid every penny even though he wasn't legally bound).

The thing I like most about Olmsted is that he was profoundly human. And it's that which is so impressive about him. You see, even after failing in life repeatedly in other endeavors he reached the pinnacle of his profession. Remarkably, landscape architecture for Olmsted was a fallback. It was something he did as a job here and there and as a hobby. It was something he never really considered viable until much later.

What Olmsted did share in common with Sargent was the relentless energy of hard work. Both spent long hours of seeing a project through to completion. Both men were opinionated, well read and intellectual. Both knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish -- though the struggle in getting there might have been intense. And probably one of the most important things (besides the hard work) they both had the knack at networking with influential people that could open doors for them in the future.

Like any highly successful artist, he had a vision of of what needed to be done and an iron will to see it come to fruition. He was a genius when it came to organization and was able to sort an incredible amounts of details into a clear and concise plan. He had difficulty dealing with people that didn't see his vision, and on more than one occasion would simply walk away from a project when he came to loggerheads with his employers.…

He was intensely interested in the slavery issue that was ripping the country apart prior to the war. He was an abolitionist (a pragmatic moderate at first which hardened later) and traveled to the south as a correspondent for the northern papers (New York Times and others) writing about the plantations and the economy that were based on the backs of slaves. He bundled his papers and writings into a weighty tome (something like this essay is turning into) and called it "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States with Remarks on Their Economy" which would be the first of three books on the south -- all critically praised but economically flopped.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hugo Chávez and Macon County’s Flying Angel

During a nature photographer’s recent presentation he displayed a photo of the magnificent Angel Falls in Venezuela.

I would have assumed the falls got its name from some seraphic quality ascribed to it. I would have been mistaken.

The photographer explained that the falls was named for Jimmie Angel…"from Franklin."

Sure enough, I read later, aviator Jimmie Angel was the first to fly over the falls. His initial view of the remote falls came in 1933 while in search of a valuable ore bed. Four years later he attempted to land his Ryan Flamingo monoplane El Río Caroní near the top of the falls. After the plane got stuck, Angel and three companions including his wife Marie had to descend the mountain on foot. After an 11 day ordeal, they reached civilization where word of the adventure spread quickly.

Jimmie & Marie Angel and an unidentified man near the base of Auyan-tepui, 1939.

Soon, the falls was named in honor of Jimmie Angel. It is known as the world’s highest waterfall, with a height of 3,458 ft. and a plunge 2,648 ft.,

The details of Jimmie Angel’s Venezuelan adventure became exaggerated in the retellings. One popular belief was that Angel landed on a mysterious tabletop mountain (Auyan-tepui; a 348 square mile heart shaped table mountain) and removed many pounds of gold from a river on the plateau, above the point where it made its long precipitous drop from the mountain.

In his book The Creature in The Map, British author Charles Nicholl reports “…I unrolled Raleigh’s chart at the British Museum, and made a few calculations, and discovered that Sir Walter Raleigh’s 'golden city' and Jimmy Angel’s 'river of gold' were one and the same place.”

Karen Angel recounts this history in The Truth about Jimmie Angel and Angel Falls, a paper she delivered at a 2001 conference.

James Crawford “Jimmie” Angel was born August 1, 1899 in Springfield, Missouri.

As far as a Macon County connection, it was his father – Glenn Davis Angel – who was born in Franklin, North Carolina in 1877.

That’s the most direct link I’ve found between this region and the daring aviator. He may have spent more than a little time with his mountain relatives. I just haven’t come across any evidence of it.

Angel died in Panama in 1956 from injuries in a flying accident. In accordance with his final wishes Angel’s ashes were scattered over the falls.

His disabled monoplane remained atop Auyantepui until 1970, when it was recovered and restored. Today, El Rio Caroní is exhibited in front of Ciudad Bolívar airport.

In 2009, the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported that President Hugo Chávez intended to change the name of Angel Falls to "Kerepakupai Merú" on the grounds that the nation's most famous landmark should bear an indigenous name.

President Chávez was reported to have said, "This is ours, long before Angel ever arrived there... this is indigenous property." Later, though, Chávez said he would not decree a name change, but was defending the use of “Kerepakupai merú.”

Links to Karen Angel’s articles

The 2001 paper,,%20REVISED,%20OCTOBER%201,%202009.pdf

And a shorter article that she wrote on Jimmie Angel and Angel Falls,

Monday, June 7, 2010


From Ralph Waldo Emerson's Compensation (1841):

...The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner. Nature hates monopolies and exceptions. The waves of the sea do not more speedily seek a level from their loftiest tossing, than the varieties of condition tend to equalize themselves. There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others. Is a man too strong and fierce for society, and by temper and position a bad citizen, -- a morose ruffian, with a dash of the pirate in him;---- nature sends him a troop of pretty sons and daughters, who are getting along in the dame's classes at the village school, and love and fear for them smooths his grim scowl to courtesy. Thus she contrives to intenerate the granite and felspar, takes the boar out and puts the lamb in, and keeps her balance true.

The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes. To preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world, he is content to eat dust before the real masters who stand erect behind the throne. Or, do men desire the more substantial and permanent grandeur of genius? Neither has this an immunity. He who by force of will or of thought is great, and overlooks thousands, has the charges of that eminence. With every influx of light comes new danger. Has he light? he must bear witness to the light, and always outrun that sympathy which gives him such keen satisfaction, by his fidelity to new revelations of the incessant soul. He must hate father and mother, wife and child. Has he all that the world loves and admires and covets? -- he must cast behind him their admiration, and afflict them by faithfulness to his truth, and become a byword and a hissing.

...the universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff; as the naturalist sees one type under every metamorphosis, and regards a horse as a running man, a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a flying man, a tree as a rooted man. Each new form repeats not only the main character of the type, but part for part all the details, all the aims, furtherances, hindrances, energies, and whole system of every other. Every occupation, trade, art, transaction, is a compend of the world, and a correlative of every other. Each one is an entire emblem of human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its enemies, its course and its end. And each one must somehow accommodate the whole man, and recite all his destiny.

The world globes itself in a drop of dew. The microscope cannot find the animalcule which is less perfect for being little. Eyes, ears, taste, smell, motion, resistance, appetite, and organs of reproduction that take hold on eternity, -- all find room to consist in the small creature. So do we put our life into every act. The true doctrine of omnipresence is, that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of the universe contrives to throw itself into every point. If the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion; if the force, so the limitation.

Thus is the universe alive. All things are moral. That soul, which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law. We feel its inspiration; out there in history we can see its fatal strength. "It is in the world, and the world was made by it." Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. {Oi chusoi Dios aei enpiptousi}, -- The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication-table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, nor more nor less, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty. What we call retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears wherever a part appears. If you see smoke, there must be fire. If you see a hand or a limb, you know that the trunk to which it belongs is there behind....


Entire essay at

[Photos, from top: Cullasaja, Cullowhee, Chauga]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

All Souls

Here’s one more from the Library of Congress:

You’ve likely driven past this church a dozen times (if not hundreds) but never saw it like this. The photo of the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village was taken in 1902 by the renowned William Henry Jackson, 1843-1942. (I posted a story on his WNC travels a couple of months ago - )

Richard Morris Hunt designed All Souls and it was one of his own favorites from a long career in architecture. I've only set foot in the church once, long ago, but the space Hunt created was memorable.

From NC Architects and Builders, A Biographical Dictionary:

One of Hunt's least known but finest churches, the brick and pebbledash edifice embodies in powerful and sophisticated form the church planning ideals Hunt had long advocated, including the central tower over the crossing and the equality of the four wings of narthex, apse, and transepts forming a Greek cross to maximize the congregation's participation.

As construction on the chateau neared completion in the spring of 1895, Hunt traveled to Biltmore to join [Frederick Law] Olmsted and [George] Vanderbilt in having their portraits painted by the fashionable artist John Singer Sargent. The full-height portraits of the two great designers hang at Biltmore. That summer, after a period of declining health, Hunt died, having seen his masterpiece essentially complete.
( Article by Leland Roth, )

And here’s that portrait of Hunt:

Richard Morris Hunt
Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, North Carolina
Oil on canvas
91 1/2 x 60 in.

Richard Morris Hunt (1828-1895) was an architect who is widely credited as the one of the fathers of American architecture. He started the first studio in America to formally train young architects in New York and took a prominent role in founding the American Institute of Architects, of which he became president in 1888. Much of his work is eclectic and designs were borrowed from many European historic styles -- some derivative of 19th century French traditions of the Beaux-Arts, having witnessed first hand the stunning transformation of Paris through city planning and beautification. When he returned to America he became part of the City Beautiful Movement.

George W. Vanderbilt hired Sargent to paint the renown architect who was designing his country chateau at Biltmore. When Sargent arrived, the building's facade was covered with scaffolding, the grounds were nothing but mud, and hundreds of construction workers were busy working everywhere. There was no background to paint. The whole place was a mess. But he was instructed to envision what it might be.

For Sargent, the whole commission was a disaster. Even Hunt's wife was giving him problems. Insisting that her husband (who was in extremely poor heath) should be depicted, not as he looked, but as she wanted him to look.

You can clearly see the painting wasn't working for Sargent. Hunt, as the central subject, is the least interesting figure of this painting. It seems Sargent felt more comfortable painting the Venetian well-head than his central figure.

When Sargent first met Hunt is unknown. They were both alumni of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts though Hunt had studied there some 25 years prior to Sargent. It's possible that they ran into each other at Hunt's 10th Street Studio in New York were John's friend William Merritt Chase also had a studio.

When John finally painted Hunt, he was at the height of his long career that spanned four decades.

( Source - )

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mountains near Ashville, 1903

I wonder if I'll ever see a book doing justice to early nature photography in WNC (and the early nature photographers).

I found this photo on the Library of Congress site -
where it was identified simply as "Mountains near Ashville (sic), c. 1903"

My best guess - the location is Hickory Nut Gorge (and Falls).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Buncombe Bob

I’m not so much a serious student of North Carolina history as a curious fan of the subject. But when I came across this photo of a Tar Heel senator, I knew it spoke volumes:

Jean Harlow plays close-up scene with North Carolina Senator Washington D.C. Reaching the Capitol today to attend the president's birthday ball, Jean Harlow, siren of the screen, paid her first visit to the United States Capitol. After greeting the Senators, the Blonde actress pulled Senator Robert Reynolds, Democrat of North Carolina, in for a close-up of her screen lovemaking. [Library of Congress caption]

Reynolds gained more attention for the Harlow kiss than for anything he accomplished as a lawmaker during his first term in the Senate.

Robert Rice Reynolds was born in Asheville June 18, 1884 and served in the United States Senate from 1933 - 1945.

The North Carolina History Project picks up the story of one colorful politician:

Reynolds was an unabashed isolationist and Anglophobe, whose foreign policy positions, not economic ones, alienated him from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reynolds’s notorious womanizing and five marriages, opposition to Prohibition, flamboyant actions, and non-racist demagoguery set him apart from the straight-laced Tar Heel politicians…

An unlikely candidate in the 1932 Democratic primary (he had lost several elections for public office, with the exception of prosecuting attorney) Reynolds, with the highest percentage in North Carolina history (65.4%), overwhelmingly and surprisingly upset the incumbent Cameron Morrison for a U. S. Senate seat. Exploiting the economic misery of Tar Heels during the Great Depression, Reynolds used class war rhetoric, portraying his opponent as a chauffeured-driven, caviar-eating, Big Business-backed plutocrat, out of touch with the electorate. Still campaigning in his worn-out Model T Ford against Prohibition (in a dry state), immigration, trusts, tariffs, and Wall Street, Reynolds easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election.

In his first term, the now expensively-attired Reynolds remained loyal to FDR’s New Deal, for he believed it provided economic salvation for his constituents by means of relief and much-needed jobs. Fully aware of Roosevelt’s popularity, the pragmatic senator, for example, endorsed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) because it provided jobs for thousands of North Carolinians who constructed the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A Keynesian redistributionist eager to tax the rich and regulate the economy, Reynolds also supported Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)--which raised tobacco prices….

During the course of his twelve years in the Senate, Reynolds’s economic views changed from a New Deal liberalism (support for government intervention in the economy and to secure social justice) to a pro-business conservatism, but his foreign policy positions remained basically the same. His anti-communism notwithstanding, Reynolds supported Roosevelt’s recognition of the Soviet Union so that the communist nation might buy North Carolina goods. A staunch unilateralist, he opposed U. S. adherence to the World Court, for he considered it a tactic to enter the failed League of Nations. During his senatorial career, Reynolds advocated strict limits on immigration, the registration of all aliens, and the deportation of alien criminals. In particular, the nativist Reynolds deemed most aliens as a threat to American security, values, and jobs, so he co-authored the Reynolds-Starnes Bill (1936) that called for cutting immigration quotas by 90%.

An advocate of “Fortress America,” Reynolds supported a strong national defense, naval expansion, and increases in the size of the army and air force….

In January 1939, Reynolds formed the Vindicators Association, an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist organization which published American Vindicator to spread his opinions. Reynolds’s association with American Nazis, fascists, and anti-Semitic demagogues, including Gerald L. K. Smith and Fr. Charles E. Coughlin, revived accusations that he was pro-Nazi. But Nazi agents and propagandists, such as George Sylvester Viereck, had genuinely deceived Reynolds and other isolationist senators, when they inserted anti-British and anti-Semitic press releases into the Congressional Record and disseminated them via his franking privileges. Also, Fritz Kuhn, leader of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, and Asheville’s leading fascist, William Dudley Pelley, and his Silver Shirts, endorsed many of Reynold’s pronouncements regarding the war; copies of American Vindicator were even sold at Bund rallies.

Due to his unpopularity at home, Reynolds decided not to seek reelection in 1944. Instead, he became national chairman of the neo-isolationist, nativist, and anti-communist American Nationalist Committee of Independent Voters, out of which came his short-lived Nationalist Party in 1945. During his last year in the Senate, Reynolds presciently warned of Soviet expansionism and voted against peacetime conscription, higher taxes, and America’s entry into the United Nations.

In October 1941, the 57 year old senator married 19 year old Evalyn Washington McLean, “the blond heiress to the Walsh-McLean fortune.” It was his fifth marriage. The only relative present for the wedding was the mother of the bride.

Following his retirement from the Senate, Reynolds briefly practiced law in Washington while living in Maryland. After the death of his wife (who overdosed on sleeping pills), he returned to Asheville (Reynolds Mountain) to raise his young daughter with the generous inheritance left by his wife….

The Old North State’s most colorful and controversial senator died on February 13, 1963. He was cremated and then buried in the family plot at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

[Source – ]


During his run for Senate, Reynolds attacked the “elitism” of the incumbent:

It was The Mayflower's Hotel’s caviar that proved the undoing of North Carolina Sen. Cameron Morrison. Morrison's opponent in the 1932 U.S. Senate race was Robert Reynolds, a populist lawyer from Asheville. Reynolds campaigned across North Carolina with a menu from The Mayflower as a campaign prop, noting that the hotel served caviar.

He accused Morrison, who stayed at The Mayflower, of eating fish eggs from Red Russia rather than good ol' North Carolina hen eggs. He also accused Morrison of eating eggs Benedict, which Reynolds said were cooked by Benedictine monks who were kept in the hotel for that purpose

[Source - Rob Christensen, "A Hotel With a History," Raleigh News and Observer, March 20, 2008 ]


From a review of Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds, by Julian M. Pleasants:

When Robert Rice Reynolds died in 1963, his hometown newspaper noted that he had "lived more of a life than a dozen men normally live." He had been, said the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen, a "migrant, cowboy, roustabout, adventurer, clown, bon vivant, [and] U.S. Senator," and if he had not reveled in every moment of each role, "he fooled a lot of people"

[Source -;col1 ]