genuine unoriginal

Dadadreams; etsy.com

Dadadreams; etsy.com

I am a collage. Genetically, I’m a blend of peoples from many places in the world, according to oral accounts of my lineage. Some day soon, I will research my ancestral heritage through a sampling of my DNA because I want to know for certain where my progenitors are from and who they might have been; I know how these things have a tendency to morph during emigration and over decades of transmission and potential white-washing. I’m curious especially about the food traditions, artisanal crafts and ceremonial practices of the cultures I come from.

Terry Lee WHETSTONe; terrywhetstone.com

Terry Lee WHETSTONe; terrywhetstone.com

pinterest.com

pinterest.com

Culturally, I am a collection of attributes that the multifarious influences in my life have led me to–I choose to hold and perpetuate those which are consistent with my beliefs. Sometimes I quarrel with myself over the vague but heavily-charged boundaries of cultural appropriation, even as I believe that if a particular practice serves an individual and they are reverent and respectful of its origins, then its use serves to honor the whole (to put it simply). I try to invent my own rites and rituals based on what I’ve found to be powerful in my quest for spiritual anchor, along with the general concepts and elements that are inherently sacred to me. It is a micro-culture that remains private, for the most part.

I recently had an epiphany about collages: #1, they are valid works of art and #2, that I had been secretly telling myself they weren’t for most of my life. I had some strange insecurity about the fact that they employed found images or objects that I hadn’t created with my own hands, from my own imagination. This is ridiculous when I consider the possibility that everything an artist produces is borrowed from the world around them. Even their interior world is informed by what they’ve seen and experienced in the physical world–the one that they share with the rest of us. The materials they use might be in a simple, raw and basic form (charcoal, for instance) but they are only materials…it’s the life that the artist breathes into them which makes them art–the meaning they become infused with. I wonder this: is collage a form of collaborative art when the materials are sourced from another creator? Must co-creation be consensual?

artist unknown; fffound

artist unknown; ffffound.com

Perils of the Easier Path by Mark Lazenby

Perils of the Easier Path by Mark Lazenby; mark

Tyler Varsell’s sketchbook; cargocollective.com

As a teenager, I found collage to be the medium in which I could most easily create a sense of what I wanted to impart. Instead of having to deal with all of the time-consuming, sometimes frustrating technical parts of drawing and painting, I was able to effectively express through the amusing act of sourcing and repurposing objects and imagery and combining them in my own context. My process involved selecting and extracting the materials to arrange and rearrange, watching the relationships between each element shift and waiting for a potent and powerful combination to emerge, which I would then affix to a surface. Sometimes the process itself  inspired new directions and revealed new meanings.

I started suspecting that collage might be totally legit when my excellent friend Ivan showed me this book:

Masters: Collage: Major Works by Leading Artists; amazon.com

The paintings beyond the link below look like collages but they’re NOT! Tricky!

Corporeal Clusters

These days I’ve been focusing on two dimensional visual art, mainly because I needed to narrow my field of focus a bit  and I wanted to gain the skills I require to complete illustration projects. However, I generally feel more compelled toward the consumption and creation of  things that provide a multi-sensory experience. I love installations, film, music and other mixtures of media for this reason.

The following is a really wonderful New Orleans project featuring lots of super great artists and makers of things. Check out the website AND the video!

Dithyrambalina

At the Frye Museum, I witnessed an awesomely artful video installation called An Ode to Octavia, a Sonic and Kinetic Ritual by The Black Constellation, though unfortunately I can’t find any images from it or the video itself. I wish you could see it. If you’re in Seattle, go check it out because it’s beautiful.

What is your perception of collage as a medium? Do you know of any outstanding artists who make collages, be they flat, three-dimensional or interactive?

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good yes please

Ah, yes yes: I have realized that I am quite blessed to have at my disposal a portal to all of the art my big, fat, indulgent heart can stand (the internet) *and* access to a whole city brimming and buzzing with museums, galleries, public/street art and much more to please my aesthetic tastes in general. WE are. We live in a time conducive to convenient consumption and one in which art is rather accessible, for which I am exuberantly grateful. I’ve come to learn that I actually need this imagination fodder and that I do well to satiate my craving for such stimulation. I’m just getting started!

Brooklyn Art Library; atlasobscura.com

One of my favorite things about living in Brooklyn is that it is the home of the Brooklyn Art Library. Here, I can sit for as long as I want, as frequently as I want (during their hours of operation) and the peachy-sweet, very hospitable employees encourage my presence without needing me to buy anything–it’s also a store hawking items like vintage postcards, notebooks, minimal art supplies, books and other odds-and-ends. Library cards are free there, just like the Public Library. It also doesn’t hurt that Mast Brothers Chocolate factory is only a few doors down.

The library hosts the permanent collection of a wonderful thing called the Sketchbook Project, the fruits of which line the walls of the space. The sketchbooks of artists from all over the world are just waiting there to satisfy your snoopiest curiosity. I insist that you to go there if ever in the vicinity. Upon receiving a library card, a set of sleek computers assist in the selection of art-filled loot by any of a variety of mechanisms, though I always choose mine by themes bearing enigmatic phrases. A friendly employee will retrieve several for you to pore over; simply return when finished for re-shelving and start the process of selection again. Repeat ad infinitum. It’s fun!

In case you’re more of a visual/audio person, here is a stop-motion video about the Sketchbook Project:

One of my favorite sketchbooks I’ve seen so far is Ileana Surducan’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, which you can see the entirety of by clicking the title. It is appealing for its wild-eyed sense of wonder and supported by her fantastic illustration skills. She’s from Romania and I like that.

This year’s collection of sketchbooks has just begun their tour and is perhaps in a city near you. You yourself can also contribute to this project; with a $25 fee, you receive a notebook and space in the library for your finished volume of sketches–and–for another $45, you can have it imaged and uploaded to the web archive for world-wide perusal along with a couple of other perks. I’m tickled half to death by this project.

To waltz along another avenue of my daily art immersion, here are a just a couple of gems I’ve found on the art blogs I pillage for sustenance–a habit I’ve recently acquired and one that I hope to continue for years to come. I strongly suggest that you get your daily dose of beauty and inspiration so you can grow up to be dreamy and giddy, just like me!

Follow the image links to view more fabulous work–these are only a sample.

Gala Bent; hifructose.com

Miss Van; hifructose.com

Vision by Katie Scott; katie-scott.com

Speaking of artists I admire, I’ve spent about six hours total at the Brothers Quay exhibit at MoMA. They’re brilliant genius twin brothers who’ve been making art for many decades. Perhaps you will enjoy reading this New York Times review of their retrospective.

Personally, I like their often repulsive, creepy aesthetic which tends to drum up the feeling of an era outside our own, of a grimy, interminable depression animated by repurposed cast-offs that speak not only to the intensity of the human condition but also of a whimsical imagination and a subtle sense of humor. It’s rich in detail, disturbing and simply phenomenal.

brothers Quay; morbidanatomy.blogspot.com

Brothers Quay; thelmagazine.com

I was introduced to the work of Heinrich Kley by my art teacher, Andy Reiss. The free and sketchy quality of Kley’s art produces such excellent style and flow of movement, plus his imagination is pretty fascinating. The illustrators for Fantasia were inspired by his art.

Heinrich Kley; fineart.ha.com

Heinrich Kley; 4ojos.com

After admiring her work online for the past numerous weeks, I saw Tiffany Bozic‘s exhibit at Joshua Liner Gallery in Chelsea. Her medium is watercolor and also washes of acrylic on maple wood panels, sometimes incorporating the pattern of the woodgrain to a lovely effect. Her subjects are primarily organisms of the natural world, often presented in unnatural combinations and positions with somewhat surreal elements, sometimes abstracted entirely for the sake of design. Her creative vision sets her apart from Audubon’s naturalist artwork that was more geared toward accurately representing nature for education as much as the appreciation of the forms–organisms in their natural environment.  I could easily see the influence of Ernst Haeckel in her finely rendered organisms, their patterns and compositions–even her color choices on some pieces. There is a dark, unsettling quality to many of her pieces that I find outstanding.

Tiffany Bozic; artistaday.com

The Golden Gate by Tiffany Bozic; joshualinergallery.com

Flesh and Blood by Tiffany Bozic; joshualinergallery.com

Shift

Piero Fornasetti; farfetch.com

After an arduous and bizarre Summer, my “real life” hiatus has finally concluded, just in time for Autumn’s arrival. I return to the Carousel upon a gust of changed wind;  you see, I have chosen to >>SHIFT<<.

Perhaps keen readers may have noticed (from previous posts) that I am a student of science. I love plants and lichens especially but I’m bowled-over by most of the disciplines within the broad spectrum of my field. To furnish a label, I say that I study Natural History, for I can learn about much of the world and it’s processes within this umbellate structure. Also, Natural History museums are one of my favorite places to be because they present concepts and objects that I love, often in an aesthetically pleasing way and sometimes through multi-sensory, interactive media. Although my passion for science has always been married to my necessity and fondness for aesthetics, science and nature have enabled my return to art. Now I have begun to lean toward art for art’s sake.

Let me back this train up (dreamy, blurred transition sequence with harp scales denoting flashback):

pinterest.com

When I was a wee lass of 16, thrashing about in the throes of hormones and mental illness, my primary love in life was painting; it was my one and only reason to get out of bed in the morning and for attending school daily. Painting made life more tolerable because I could concentrate my turbulence into expression and also focus on the perception of  the physical world outside of me. I saw layers of paint slathered everywhere I looked, instructing me in the ways of light, shadow and color, allowing me to see what was actually in front of me instead of the meagre projection of what I expected. It was a form of escape and it was to be my Escape Plan.

However, a near constant succession of emotional storms culminated in something akin to a meteorite collision, which struck me down into a pile of crumbs. After that, I was unable to paint because I had nothing inside me to express. I sat staring at empty canvases, mouth agape as if paralyzed at the beginning of a scream, which ran out of steam and rusted in place. The main problem was that I was rendered unfeeling and impotent by the too-strong anti-psychotic medication prescribed to me by a diagnosis-happy charlatan who bragged about being an allopathic physician and shamed me for being queer. Bless his coronary. True, I was no longer crazy enough to be dangerous to myself or anyone else because all I could think about was eating and sleeping…but all I could do was eat and sleep and as such, I lost my true love to the Nothing. Is that any kind of life?

Selasphorus rufus and Xylocopa californica arizonensis

After years of quivering in the shadows of traumatic aftershock and in fear of criticism for my lack of skills and a suspicion about my level of talent, I forced myself to pick a new medium; a new muse naturally installed itself thereafter. Watercolor paintings and drawings of non-human entities delivered me into new territory, only marginally associated with the battleground.

Biological illustration is one of my favorite types of art and I have been practicing little by little, though it has been exquisitely painful, for there is sensitive scar tissue around the phantom wounds. Above, you see two products of this effort–I watercolor painted these animal friends, which were extracted from a large interpretive poster I made about ocotillo’s (Fouquieria splendens) pollinating partners.

After struggling through many a misstep and accepting that I am merely an imperfect beginner, I decided to finally-at-last heal the heartbreak and gift myself that which I lack–a solid foundation in technical artistic training. Through a serendipitous meeting of a professional illustrator named Zelda Devon, I now have a weekly art class with an outstanding and encouraging teacher to help me mend and make new my identity as an artist. Yeah, because I said it: I’m an artist and nobody can change that (not even me). So there.

Here are a few pieces of art that I’ve foraged from the internet–I find them lovely and exciting:

Langdon Graves; booooooom.com

This piece by Langdon Graves pleases me immensely with the muted palette I so often gravitate towards, treated with a flash of hot color that draws the eye. The subject’s dismemberment is made only slightly disturbing with her bunny hands, though I find it more sweet and imaginative than morbid.

Carne Griffiths’ work is nudging me toward a return to human portraiture with his ethereal, fractured work. I also love it when people incorporate materials other than the precious, highfalutin stuff one acquires at the art store, such as Griffiths’ tea and booze.

Fragment Postcard Pack by Carne Griffiths; behance.net

Here are some pretty graphic design things by Tatiana Plakhova–check out the website because there you will find a whole universe of gorgeous, sort of mind-blowing images.

The End of Geography by Tatiana Plakhova; complexitygraphics.com

From ‘The End of Geography’ by Tatiana Plakhova; complexitygraphics.com

Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel was given to me for my birthday by my darling friend Danielle. Haeckel is so absolutely outstanding! I want to be like him when I grow up.

amazon.com

Tiffany Bozic’s new book Drawn by Instinct features the very kind of artistic expression I hope to one day be capable of; she melds the meticulous detail of a scientist with realistic portrayals of creatures–some are posed within strange, compelling compositions–and gives them the breath of emotional movement. Essentially: I want this book. I would accept it as a gift, should anyone be so inclined to offer!

From Tiffany Bozic’s book ‘Drawn by Instinct’; hifructose.com

From Tiffany Bozic’s book ‘Drawn by Instinct’; hifructose.com

Choose Your Own Adventure

Mai by Alphonse Mucha

Ahh, dear May…you are nearly over! As the days lengthen and temperatures climb, a bittersweet resignation settles in; I accept the progression of Spring into Summer and that soon, my focus will shift away from lichens for a while. I’m savoring the last few weeks of it.

To my chagrin, I didn’t go a’ Maying at the start of this month but I did manage to haunt a forested lakefront on a lichen collecting expedition.

unknown photographer; flickr.com

The illustrious James Lendemer chauffeured me in his rental car through the Pocono mountains, which are lovely with decrepit 70s era motels languishing amidst cottages and winding wooded roads. The forests here are so dainty compared to the Pacific Northwest’s old growth grandeur but they suffice for a nature-hungry waif like myself. After a second breakfast in Newfoundland, where I sadly missed the tasting of “scrapple” due to it’s possession of wheat, we drove on and circumvented Scranton, Pennsylvania of ‘The Office’ fame and finally landed at Frances Slocum State Park. The park itself was a pleasant and piddly little thing which held a surprising diversity of lichens, especially species that live on rocks (at least one of which Mr. Lendemer named).

Our trail amble was sweetened by brevity and masses of invasive honeysuckle blooms, upon which a buzzing, diverse crowd of insects were gorging themselves. Every so often my hunting companion made delighted exclamations of Latin names, as if bumping into old friends on the street. We saw all kinds of subtly bizzarre things, including a jade colored fungus the likes of which I’d never encountered; it looked a bit like this, but less intense:

Chlorociboria aeruginascens by Bob Gibbons; sciencephoto.com

It’s not a lichen, but it looks similar in some ways. It produces fruiting bodies in a familiar form because the fungi that most commonly lichenize are Ascomycetes, which is what this fungus is.

Chlorociboria sp. by George Barron; mushroomexpert.com

Being in a natural setting with James is such fun. He’s quite knowledgeable about so many of the organisms and their proceedings and his enthusiasm makes it extra exciting. At one point, he came around a rocky outcrop with cupped hands extended and said, “Look!”. When he opened them up, an adorable, bumpy toad peered back at me and clumsily stumbled around. James thought it was an American toad, like the one below. It was so small that I could only pet it gently with just one finger before it was released into its riparian habitat. I decided that our friend looked like it was covered in a brownish crust lichen! Compare:

u-s-c.org

nhm2.uio.no

In the midst of my collecting, I remembered to stop for a few moments to admire my surroundings–before me was a small, placid lake surrounded by freshly budded and leafing trees and such delicious quiet–I hadn’t been out of New York City since I arrived, so this was quite a treat! It seems the further from the city you get, the farther behind the vegetation is in waking from its Winter slumber–a common phenomenon due to the ambient warmth that the metropolitan area–in all its energy-burning and concrete glory–tends to cradle. Manmade microclimates are good for something, I guess. Staggered Spring!

I’ve been steadily working through all of the lichens I collected in order to discover their identity; their names are a mystery until I observe all of their important characteristics and work through a key to figure them out. I have the excellent fortune of sitting in a room with the man who wrote some of the keys to the species I am processing, so I get to ask him questions, clarify his terms and use his incredibly fancy video microscope to peer into these tiny things. A magical window indeed.

Identification keys are often found in guide books about whatever type of organism you want to get to know, though there are interactive ones online as well. I’ve used keys to ID plants, fungi, lichens, animal bones, butterflies, minerals, etcetera. Many of the keys are arranged dichotomously, which means they will offer two choices, one of which will best describe what you are observing if you’re in the right spot. Here’s a simple illustrated one about sharks:

The first couplet is usually pretty basic information and once a choice is made, it will lead you to the next two options; it will get more specific the further it goes. It’s a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure story but instead of the resolution to the plot, you get to know another organism by the end of it!

Lichens are very challenging to key out because they’re so small and require a microscope for many features, in addition to chemical tests that are sometimes ambiguous and depend on the variable concentrations of chemicals present in the lichen. As with any good science, there is a whole language involved–the terminology further complicates the process but I love it.

Lichenology is such a young science that there is still much to discover; I wonder what we will know about these mysterious, mini-ecosystems in 5 years…in 10…20? I hope to lend a hand to the discoveries and continue participating in this adventure in whatever small way I may. Cheers–to a lichen enlightenment! Now check this out: Ways of Enlichenment.

sex and nonsex

Julius Klinkhardt; vintageprintable.com

It is Spring! The sun is warm and strong now and days of it are strung together with lustrous rainy ones. Plants are waggling their petaled parts, exuding fragrant messages and beckoning to whatever vector makes the magic happen for them. People are shedding Winter-worn layers for brighter, lighter and smaller articles, revealing ever more of themselves to the hungry eyes and fluttering hearts of their compatriots. The air is ripe with pollen grains enough to excite any wayfaring sinus or epiglottis into a crescendo of…mucus? Hmmm. Luckily for yours truly, northeastern Spring doesn’t have such an expectorant effect and indeed, I am all too happy to be whisked away into blissful reverie by the pungent, floral-scented Atlantic breezes. Swoon!

Now I want to tell you about lichen sex. I cannot refrain from anthropomorphizing this subject, so I appreciate your forgiveness in advance. Thank you. As a burgeoning scientist, I’m not supposed to attribute human characteristics to other organisms but I think it’s helpful to have some kind of context within which to understand this fairly complicated and unusual subject. Plus, it’s far more fun to explain it in ways that appeal to our desire for relatable drama.

The most basic way to put what I have to say is this: some lichens have sex and some do not. At least, we haven’t seen them do it.

Ah-break it dowwwnn:

Sexy lichens have sex. The most outstanding thing about this evolutionary mechanism is the dynamic between the symbiotic partners–the fungi wear the bossy pants and actually suppress the reproductive abilities of their algae or cyanobacteria. Although the fungi and algae don’t have sex with each other, they are domestic partners in that they share living quarters and the algae also feeds the fungi food that it’s photosynthesized for itself. What’s more, the fungi gets to have all the reproductive fun they can muster but refuses to allow the photobiont to reproduce. No sexy time! It’s not the most fair relationship by my standards but it’s apparently working well for them, so obviously I am not an appropriate judge. It is thought that this measure ensures that the algae doesn’t evolve into less suitable genetic configurations that wouldn’t work as well for the fungus to partner up with. To complicate things a bit, let me blow your mind with this interesting, though somewhat irrelevant fact: fungi have so many sexual types that there is no male or female–if you’ve read my previous posts, you have to know how much I love this divergence from boring old binary gender systems.

As I was saying, it is only the fungus which thrusts its way through the surface of the lichen, creating structures we refer to as a “fruiting body”, which are analogous to genitals in that they release reproductive spores. It could look like these parts:

Dibaeis baeomyces by Stephen/Sylvia Sharnoff; lichen.com

Suggestive, no?

apothecia types; Erik Acharius; http://www.nrm.se

So, their spores are disseminated into the world, not just to make new genetic combinations, but specifically to search for that special someone to move in with: an algal symbiotic partner. They’re really into interspecific relationships. You see, the fungi that wants to become a lichen is dependent upon algae–it can’t live without it! Isn’t that terribly romantic? Less romantic is the fact that fungi can switch algal partners. If it doesn’t like the one it’s with, it can pick a more suitable partner either by stealing it from another lichen or acquiring it from a free-living algae community.

Non-sexy lichens do not have sex. They can also be referred to as sterile, but that makes them sound like they’re lolling about at the end of their genetic lineage…which is just not true! It might be that some of them are just very discreet and only have sex occasionally which we just haven’t seen enough of to say that they do. The ones who don’t have sex are not prudes devoted to practicing abstinence, nor are they barren curmudgeons–they simply don’t need sex to reproduce. These crafty little darlings have evolved into this lifestyle because it’s clearly successful for them.

Isidia; unknown photographer

They produce asexual propagules, which are little bundles of cells that can grow into genetic replicas–a clone, if you will. They come in a couple of forms, being isidia, which are finger-like or soredia, which are more like balls or granules. These propagules are released by the lichen into the environment, typically via water, animals or wind, and if they land on their preferred surface (we call that a “substrate”) and are surrounded in the right conditions, they can become a new lichen with the same genetic makeup. It’s kind of crazy. That’s like if you grew fingers which fell off and then grew into a whole new you! This method is not unique to lichens–some plant species also produce “pups” that can grow into new plants…investigate stonecrops, agave, yucca, cacti and spider plants for more info on how they do such magnificent things. The picture below is a succulent plant with three smaller pup propagules around it.

Echeveria agavoides w/ pups; glenhirstcactiandpalms.co.uk

Unfortunately, sterile lichens don’t get much lichenology play because so many scientists aren’t willing to take the time to understand them. They’re challenging. Dunh-duh-duh-nuhnnn, James Lendemer to the rescue! James, whom you may recall from my previous post, is a lichenologist at the New York Botanical Garden who has championed the sterile crustose lichens for years now–researching them, redefining their taxonomies and even the ways in which we look at and describe them. He’s written keys for them, which are necessary to identification and thusly make it possible for us to get to know who we’re working with.

Sterile lichens are every bit as important as reproductive lichens because they provide similar services to humans and they have their own role in their environment–they deserve to be protected from habitat destruction for the very same reasons. They are extra important even, because they tell us a different story about evolution and the perpetuation of species. I, for one, am listening.

What shall I call thee?

Fungi by Carl Linnaeus

I just love names. I love applying monikers to plants, animals, inanimate objects, pieces of art, actions, dance moves, stories and poetry, colors, etcetera. I used to want to design my own line of cosmetics just so I could name the products–when I was fifteen, I had an idea for a nail polish collection inspired by bowling balls…but I digress.

What I want to talk about is taxonomy. Taxonomy is the classification of things; in biology, this is about understanding how one species relates to other species, which leads to finding a position for them within the tree of life and ensures that they are properly named. Humans tend to come up with systems that help us organize the things we find around us and it is convenient to have something consistent to call these things so we can effectively communicate about them.

Scientific names use Latin to create helpful uniformity, though some names have Greek roots too. For example, a person from Vietnam can say Helianthus annus to a Colombian and both can feel confident that they are referring to the well-known North American sunflower. ‘Sunflower’ is what we refer to as it’s common name–these kinds of names are dangerous and tricky because they could refer to anything that a person thinks is a sunflower, which might not be anything close to the species you imagine when you think of a sunflower. According to Wikipedia, there are 38 species of native perennial sunflowers in North America alone, so you can imagine that without a specific name, we could be talking about very different plants. This makes a big difference in the larger picture–say, if you wanted to eat something or use it as medicine, you’d need to be certain you’re ingesting the right plant or fungi (considering some are rather poisonous and could potentially kill you).

Carl Linneaus; gap.entclub.org

Binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linneaus. He invented this standard naming system because it was such a confusing jumble otherwise. Let me break it down for you: the whole name includes two parts–1) a genus and 2) a species, in that order. Though it comes first, the genus is like your last name–other people in your family share it, indicating that you’re related. You also have your own unique first name, which is analogous to the species name (unless you’re a junior, in which case I’m not talking about you). This two name system makes it easier to talk about plants, animals, fungi–even bacteria have scientific names. As humans, in our current evolutionary form, we are called Homo sapiens. You might notice that I’ve italicized every Latin name and capitalized only the first letter of the genus, which is the correct way to type it. When handwritten, you simply underline the name.

To get even more legit, when you write common names, they are not capitalized unless they contain a proper noun, such as Williamson’s sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) vs. yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius); this subject is debated within the scientific community but it is how I was taught as a botanist/writer by a botanist/writer and I will adhere to it until someone provides me with sound reasoning otherwise.

Listen to a brief and amusing episode of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ about naming species with Robert Krulwich:

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=94886658&m=94953486&t=audio

It is important to note that this somewhat reductionist branch of science is not the only legitimate system for naming things. There is immense value in the taxonomies used by indigenous communities, where the names allow them to communicate details about the species they interact with to a degree in which scientific names fall quite short. This article describes just that: Endangered languages encode plant and animal knowledge

Lichens are special because they are not one single organism, as they may appear to the naked eye. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are a partnership of fungi, algae or cyanobacteria and bacteria, which are not normally related to each other. Because these species join forces and operate as if they were one, and since they look very different in their partnership than in their individual forms, lichens are often referred to as a singular organism. It’s confusing, huh?! We could think of them as a tiny ecosystem or we could look at them as a composite individual, like we do a sunflower. Either way, we need to be able to identify them by a tidy little name so we go with the conventional binomial nomenclature, which is based on the fungal partner (aka–the mycobiont). Only 3 percent of the algal species (photobionts) that become the lichens we know and love have been identified, so this kind of makes sense.

Read more about this conundrum here in an essay on the names of lichens by Trevor Goward, who is a prominent lichenologist.

Entrances and side doors

Oscar Furbacken’s ‘Urban Lichen’

After a wintry season spent learning and dreaming of the circus and freak shows, Spring has delivered me into new digs and an old obsession; New York City and I have reunited and I have resumed my study of lichens! I can hardly believe my good fortune in the opportunities and events which have presented themselves; persistent dreams are now unfolding, yielding effortlessly in ways I never even dreamed possible. My heart swells in ebullient blooms of joy every time I recall my present reality. (Sighhh).

I am now a “volunteer-intern” at the New York Botanical Garden, where I stand at the intersection of at least three of my dreams. What seems like a lifetime ago, I tried to move to this fine and ferocious city. I was here for two months trying to get on my feet with a job and home and it simply didn’t work out. My first choice for work had been as a gardener’s assistant at this very institution but I couldn’t even get an interview. Now, I  enter its gates via academia (with an official badge!) and work in a field I love (minus manual labor!), plus I get to learn from and connect with fancy scientists at one of the most prestigious botanical research facilities in our country. I pinch myself almost every day just to be sure.

Christopher Ong

I feel such honor and privilege every time I enter the heavy doors of this majestic library building, which is where I now work. My current project is to help preserve collections of ancient lichens in one of the world’s best herbaria–an herbarium is a collection of preserved plants that may also include fungi and lichens. The New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium is second only to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. You can check out NYBG’s virtual Steere Herbarium here.

The collection I’m currently working with is from Europe–so far, most of the specimens have been from Finland. Each crumbling paper packet holds the promise of surprise–their stories I can only imagine. I am finding species that I recognize from my own collections and field work in the Pacific Northwest, though most I’ve never heard of–a seemingly endless parade of variation in form is revealed to me about thirteen times an hour. Through the objectives of my antiquated microscope, I observe the minute features of what appear to be bizarre alien landscapes. I even found the corpse of a tiny ant that’s likely been dead for nearly one hundred years; it was perfectly intact, as if it had just fallen asleep while exploring, frozen in time but never to awake. I wanted to take a picture of it but I realized that I didn’t bring my digital camera to NYC with me. I need to borrow one!

I love the thought of my trajectory meeting that of the scientists who came before me–of my hands touching the work of their hands…splicing my own story with their legacies. What would they think of me in this modern world, fussing over their specimens as if I were swaddling babies, shaking life back into the fruits of their passion while swooning over their elegant penmanship? I hope my enthusiasm pleases their long-deceased spirits.

One of the best things about this experience is that I am working with a highly regarded lichenologist by the name of James Lendemer–a prolific, brilliant man who is now my field supervisor. I adore him! He is so thoughtful and generous in addition to being fun, welcoming and patient with me. Check out this sweet and informative video starring Mr. Lendemer himself!

http://www.sciencefriday.com/embed/video/10336.swf

I am very much looking forward to getting to know the lichens and flora / fauna of the Northeast, as I’ve never actually been anywhere on the east coast other than New York City. Adventures! If you’re in this corner of the country and want to adventure with me, please let me know!

of sparkle and shadow

I am frequently consumed by the search for that which stands out as fascinating, bizarre and beautiful about the world because, quite simply: it stimulates me. This big hunk of brain I received by the sheer circumstance of being born human–it can do so much! It just wants to go. It wants to be tickled, awed, amused, puzzled, inspired and surprised…or else! Or else it will grow listless and start picking…picking old wounds, picking up rocks to throw, picking apart the faults of any and every little thing, weakening important structures until their ultimate demise. If nothing else, lack of stimulation causes a hellacious case of the doldrums.

Circuses and sideshows have provided for such needs and desires for centuries with an array of sparkling and/or perverse diversions. At the circus, we find lights illuminating daring, titillating movement; the spangles, puff and gleam of dazzling costumery; displays of the foreign, exotic and unusual; the enchantment of illusion and of witnessing feats that somersault over the boundaries of possibility–all contained within the grandeur of a giant tent to astonish, entertain and provide a few hours of work-free revelry. Frivolity.

Emily Winfield Martin

Like spun sugar, it dissolves with a sweet satisfaction, incomparable to any other natural experience. Its soft, airy texture melts away, gets you giddy and then vanishes like a phantom, leaving you wanting more and wishing it were a sustainable taste–a lasting sensation. And like spun sugar, the circus also has its dark side. The big top is a shadowy place. The backstage realities of the performers have often been far from sugar-coated, many of them seeking asylum from life’s myriad unpleasantries in the nomadic anonymity. The life of a traveller with a physically demanding occupation eventually takes its toll; some of the more dangerous acts have resulted in injury, disability or death for an unlucky roster of performers. On the other hand, physical abnormalities and strange talents actually provided some with work in the sideshows–outfits which often traveled along with the circus, presenting oddities normally relegated to the cultural shadows. I have been learning about this subject as well, but think it best to treat it in another post.

I gifted myself an enormous, rather heavy book that is as rich in information as it is beautiful. Taschen’s The Circus Book: 1870-1950 by Noel Daniel is full of gorgeous old photographs and prints from the golden days of the circus. Each chapter and caption is written in English, French and German consecutively, which accounts for its extra-large size. It goes into depth about the historical roots, the backstage culture, different types of acts, the way it influenced feminine “emancipation”, and so much more. In fact, this is the book that helped me identify one of the reasons I love the circus so much: women could be tough, brave, clever, talented and glamorous. I’ve noticed that most of the images and stories I’m drawn to feature feminine subjects (impersonators and half-and-halfs included); I acknowledge my bias.

Chinese entertainers

The roots of the circus can be found in Egypt some 5,000 years ago, where acrobats and jugglers were immortalized in graphic depictions. 2,000 years ago, Chinese jugglers, acrobats and magicians performed during the harvest celebrations of the Han dynasty.

Other historical ties include the priests of Cybele, an earth mother goddess cult in Asia Minor comprised of either transgendered males or eunuchs that traveled around trying to convert people by way of their blessed performances. The idea was that the seemingly super-human skills and magic of their performers were a product of divinity. Eventually, the performers realized that the audiences appreciated their acts for what they were–exhibitions of human talent and practiced skill. In time, the performers cleaved their acts from their religious affiliations and were considered witches and consorts of the devil thereafter–a disdain which seems to have followed artists of this ilk for centuries.

Phillip Astley Esq.

The first technical circus was created just outside of London near Westminster Bridge by Sergeant Major Philip Astley in 1770. It was originally a place where he displayed his “equestrian prowess”, being a horseman with flamboyant style and a head for business. He later developed it into a riding school, and then eventually decided that his performances could have more sway over audiences and continue to make money if he brought in other acts, like jugglers, rope dancers, and acrobats from London’s theatres. The term ‘circus’ is Latin for circle, which is a nod to the ring that horses are traditionally ridden in and which has remained a tradition up to the present day, thanks to this enterprising bloke. While Astley was the first to bring performances to a ring in this fashion, it was in 1782 that Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin first used the word ‘circus’ to identify their performance space ‘The Royal Circus Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy’ or simply, ‘The Royal Circus’, which was a permanent structure situated conveniently nearby Astley’s Amphitheatre.

Astley's Amphitheatre

John Bill Rickets was a protege of Astley’s who brought the circus stateside to Philadelphia, Boston and New York, though these early stirrings were housed typically in wooden structures that were built in advance of the circus’ arrival. Due to high construction costs, this was a burdensome model, and rather disadvantageous, especially since people couldn’t smoke in these structures for fear of being enveloped in flames ignited by a single errant butt. So then, the circus began to pitch tents and travel from town to town. Then, they spread like a wildfire of delight across the entire countryside.

These diversions were most popular when transportation was limited and there were few entertainment options available to the landlocked, moderately isolated country. Covered wagons and rivers were used to move the show before trains came along. When the tracks were laid, the circuses became big business.

In fact, the circus was the original show business. When the circus came to town, everything else would shut down to enjoy the one time a year that such extravagant spectacularity was readily available.

Moving picture shows stole the crowds quite a bit around the early 1900s.  When the film industry took off, the circus followed suit and promoted their stars similarly; celebrity status was given to the biggest acts and the tabloids followed their lives accordingly. This helped them compete for a time but when most households acquired radios, the number of circus-goers further diminished. Television was another devastating blow to the circus industry. Strangely, during these waning years, war tended to revive the ticket sales, as everyone was hungry for something to take their mind off of hard times and missing loved ones. Since the beginning of the end, the circus has seen a steady decline in popularity and thusly, revenue. Sadly, it is no longer as viable a way to earn a living, yet there are still some stragglers perpetuating these traditions and making circus magic happen in the modern world–I will write about these circuses and other potential evolutionary offshoots in a future post.

Speaking of films and circus, I recently watched Water for Elephants. I had heard wonderful things about the book and thought I’d just have an abbreviated experience, enjoy the aesthetic of the film and get the bones of the story. I would still like to read the book, as I imagine the story would be stronger and then I wouldn’t be distracted by my mild distaste for Reese Witherspoon’s performance. To be honest, I didn’t love the casting for any of the lead roles but I did think the cinematography was good and I liked the styling. Ultimately, the animals were my favorite characters.

I much prefer Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which I believe better captures what I’ve surmised to be the spirit of the circus. The narrator gives an excellent discourse on this subject and the direction of the film beautifully illustrates so many of the essential elements. Plus, I love the songs and dancing; I really appreciate how talented actors had to be in eras past–singing and dancing well was part of their job. Multi-faceted talent is so much dreamier.

In addition to my studies of the history and culture of circuses and sideshows, I am also building my very own circus skills. It’s terribly exciting! I did my first unassisted handstand after practicing for weeks with the door frame; I seemed to have randomly found the perfect point of balance where my legs were both extended above me and, for a few moments, my upside-down, vertically oriented body was comfortably still. Totally thrilling! I’ve been able to replicate it, though with slightly less success. The key is in not thinking about it–just doing it without trying too hard (which is applicable to many other activities and processes). I also started attending an aerial conditioning class, in which I learned how to climb the silks and do a pike position while suspended from my wrists, parallel to the floor. I’m scared of heights as well as the pain and humiliation of falling/failing in front of people, so this was quite a victory for me indeed. My goal is more to confront these fears as well as to gain strength, flexibility and confidence–it’s less about becoming an aerial dancer. Who knows where it will lead, though…I’m super excited for my next class!

I’ve also been practicing my musical saw and singing incessantly. My saw-playing is still a bit rusty (get it?!) but in time, I will be ready to share it with others. Here’s a charming saw duet:

And here are a few circus babes for good measure.


Rabbit Hole Kingdom

Life has happened to me, as it is wont to do. It carried the days into weeks, into months and so on. Tight schedules, new beginnings, old patterns, new passions…they all knitted me into a kind of blissfully hectic enmeshment of preoccupation. I return, nevertheless, to regale you with tidbits.

A significant piece of the material I was immersed in was my study of fungi and lichens. When I say “my study”, it would be more accurately described as my OBSESSION. If you knew how truly amazing the fungal kingdom is, you’d probably be obsessed with it too! Okay–maybe not, but you’d be pretty impressed.

They heal! They steal! They glow in the dark! It’s…FUNGI!

courtesy of National Geographic

Yes, we can use fungi for a great many things–as food, medicine, remediators of soil, decomposers of waste and so much more. Some species are the opposite of useful to us, but I try to love them anyway. We share a common ancestor! Fungi is more closely related to animals than they are plants. They’re not plants–did you know that? They inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like we do.

Let the celebrity expert tell you more: Paul Stamets explains it all. Be prepared to have your mind blown in a rapid-fire succession of brilliance. See if you can adventure along with an open mind.

Ernst Haeckel's Lichenes

Lichens are my true love, when it comes to the fungal kingdom. I am particularly enamored of them because of their mysterious nature; they require an observer to look very closely–with a microscope, even–in order to perceive their awesome complexity. We know so little about them, even now. What we do know is that while they appear to be one organism, they are in fact a partnership of several species living and functioning together. We call this symbiosis. I call it a miniature ecosystem. You are also a mini-ecosystem; you wouldn’t be alive or well without the various species you host–the “good” bacteria that live in your guts and orifices, on your skin, all the way down to the mitochondria in your cells. You might take a moment now to acknowledge the oft-neglected work of your symbiotic partners. Like this: Good job, beneficial bacteria (etcetera)!

In case you didn’t know, lichens are typically made up of a fungus, algae and/or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), and probably bacteria. This is how it works: the alga or cyanobacterium produces food for itself and the fungus through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides it with protection from the sun or grazing animals, physical structure and opportunities to explore new territories. Some people compare such a relationship to farming, in that the fungi is tending to the algae/cyanobacteria, utilizing its nutritive products and controlling its ability to reproduce. Alas, change and fluctuation can occur in any relationship; within the lifetime of an individual lichen, stressors and environmental conditions may change, shifting a once happy partnership into one of parasitism and slavery. One potential story line in this scenario is that the fungus begins to take too much and exhausts the algae or cyanobacteria’s production capacity, even killing it by over-harvesting. Sound familiar? Ringing any relationship bells? There are many parallels to be drawn between lichens and humans. I appreciate the lessons they offer about ecology, co-existence and relationships in general.

My favorite thing that lichens can do for humans is to provide a source of medicine.

Usnea is the genus of a lichen that encompasses many species, all of which contain usnic acid, which is recognized for its powerful antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects (among others). It is even being studied for treatment and prevention of HIV and both types of herpes. Woah! The pharmaceutical industry will never let it be said that it works, but now you know that it might. Just sayin’. I can tell you how to harvest it and make your own tincture, should you care to do so.

Plus, they’re exquisitely weird and beautiful! Look at this little “fairy lipstick” below. It produces sexual reproductive cells on those scandalously red tips!

Cladonia bellidiflora

While my fascination and reverence for the fungal kingdom persists, my studies have wrapped up and I am preparing to embark on a whole new kind of escapade. You will certainly hear more about it, but I want it to be a surprise for next time!

Heart

This–my first ever blog post–is hereby dedicated to my favorite organ. It must be my favorite, for as much as I think /speak/ write of it and act on its insistent whims.

We speak figuratively of the heart so frequently that the physical organ has become inexorably tethered to our emotions; to descriptions of a person’s character; to love in general. It is a universal icon–the representative of our bloody, throbbing passions. The associations of this anatomical bastion run many centuries deep through our human culture, impaling and stitching us all together at a point approximately one hand’s-width above our belly-button (and a little to the left). It’s fascinating to me that when I am heart-achey, I actually feel a dull pain in the center of my chest, or–alternatively–when I’m feeling twitterpated or very excited, the sensation is that of a radiant, warm tickle in this very same location.

I’m always tinkering in the associated aspects of this organ, trying to understand the myriad brilliances of it. To aid the process, I’ve given my own heart a specific identity that I can visualize and relate to: she is a sultry, voluptuous lady who lives in a luxurious, fort-like chamber, which is appropriately bedecked in warm-toned silk and velvet, with pillows artfully arranged for maximum poise. She gushes and oozes sweetness and acceptance all over everything she perceives…until she doesn’t. She is indulgent, fickle and intense. She is playful and very dramatic. I ask her questions about what she needs and wants, or just what to do with whatever perplexing situation I happen to be in. She is always sincere and never bothers with logic or censorship. When she’s scared, she simply sobs and hides inside the drapes. Although she may at times seem a flighty little hen, when I follow her instructions (even against my brain’s “better” judgement) I am always rewarded handsomely–that is, if I’ve listened well enough and am willing to sift out the gold…to see what I’ve learned or gained beyond the awkward limitations of expectation.

I’ve read from a variety of sources about the spectacular magic of the heart. Here, I’m referring to the physical organ again.  One of the sources is a book about listening to plants, much as I’ve described the way I listen to my heart. It’s called The Secret Teachings of Plants: the Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

As the title suggests, the book proposes that along with the brain, our heart is another center for intelligence, which really feels right to me. This philosophy is not new, but was a basic tenet held by many ancient peoples. One of my favorite things I learned from this book is about the teeny tiny, but extremely important part of our hearts…

CELLS!

The heart has multiple types of cells; the muscle cells have a beat because they make a kind of rhythmic contraction. When an individual myocyte (muscle cell) is isolated, it has a rhythm of its own but when it is integrated with other cells of its kind, all of the rhythms of the individual cells “entrain”, or synchronize, to form one beat. I don’t fully understand the science of this phenomenon, but I love the concept of these individuals coming together, touching each other and surrendering their individuality to create a cohesive rhythm; they work in unison. If it weren’t for this special magic, our hearts couldn’t pump blood to the rest of our bodies. If we applied the simple beauty of this concept to our interpersonal relationships, the issues of our species and to the declining remnants of our ecosystem…well, *you* imagine what that could look like. And then tell me!