Commemorative Names and Diplomatic Bridges: Begonia ‘Kimjongilia’ Turns 30

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On a mural in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il enjoy a garden setting. Photo by Michael Day, Creative Commons by 2.0
On a mural in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il enjoy a garden setting. Photo by Michael Day, Creative Commons by 2.0

Long known as “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il was from 1980 a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, from 1991 the Supreme Commander of the People’s Army, and from 1993 Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea until he died in 2011. That’s an assortment of important names, isn’t it?

From February 1988, added to this array was a new variety of begonia to reflect them, ‘Kimjongilhwa.’

In the second act of a play you might have seen or read, Juliet Capulet asks her boyfriend, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” Although they can be arbitrary or intentional, there is much to a name indeed. Read more

Let Local Wildlife Teach You the Value of an “Untidy” Garden

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a seed head from a flower, probably Queen Anne's lace, covered with snow

Two of the best short things I’ve read lately came out over the weekend. One is “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild” by Margaret Renkl, and we’ll get to the other one soon enough, but what I want to draw your attention to is the broad topic they share. The best term for that common theme, “biosphere,” might seem to you like a rather new word, even a trendy one, but in fact Austrian geologist Eduard Suess first used it in 1875 when he wrote The Origin of the Alps. Read more

Contemplate Botanical and Biological Motifs in Some of the Earliest Abstract Art

In case you didn’t notice, February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin.

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an untitled and undated painting by Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)
Untitled and undated
Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)

In the late 19th Century, as the theory of evolution gained acceptance, scholars would apply its principles and language to many fields of human endeavor, such as history, education, and how to help the poor. A large part of this transfer was due to the writing and influence of the English polymath Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

And what did he do, or rather, what did he envision?

Spencer extended the idea of evolution from living things into an all-embracing concept about the physical world as well as the human mind, human culture, politics, and societies. He suggested that they all developed progressively.

As a result, in criticism of art, music, and literature, scholars began identifying ways that an artist’s work or ideas “evolved” over the course of a career, or how a genre or field evolved across decades or centuries. By 1900, the symphony “evolved,” portraiture “evolved,” the short story and the sonnet “evolved,” and some works were established as the greatest because it was all sorted out by a process of . . . wait for it . . . natural selection.

You might step back from all that progressive development and competition to ask, when did this “evolution” begin? On an individual level, at an early age indeed. In The Child’s Pianoforte Book (1882), English businessman, mayor, and philanthropist Henry Keatley Moore would summarize the tone of the times where he says, “The development of the race is reproduced in the development of the child . . . all teaching must proceed from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown.”

It’s this background that brings us to the classically-trained Swedish artist whose work challenges the established notion of how modern art “evolved.” Read more

Winter Sweetness for the Eyes and the Nose

a Basket of Winter Flowers, painting on silk by Li Song (1166-1243)
Basket of Winter Flowers, painting on silk
Li Song (1166-1243)

The realism allows each plant to be identified. What we see is a rattan basket filled with some of the earliest flowers of the year. From left, they are (top) Chinese winter-flowering plum with green calyx, (bottom) narcissus, camellia, wintersweet, and daphne. Once plum blossoms have been open for a while, the calyx changes to red, so this state indicates the freshest and first flowers to be produced. What the picture can’t show you is the fragrance Read more

Timeless Observations of the Sun and the Season from Americans Henry Beston and Charles Burchfield

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the sun shines through a frosty forestAfter what Charles Kingsley just gave us, would it harm to tarry on the phenomena of nature–and our responses to them–just a little more? In 1927, while living in a two-room house on Cape Cod, recent Harvard graduate Henry Beston would muse that

A year indoors is a journey along a paper calendar; a year in outer nature is the accomplishment of a tremendous ritual. To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimage of the sun.

That “pilgrimage of the sun” is followed, as he said, more closely by some than by others. In A Hat Full of Sky (2004), British author Terry Pratchett would observe, breezily wresting a bit of imagination from the mundane, “The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it.” A writer as brilliant as Alexandre Dumas could not have put it better. In February 1946 artist Charles Burchfield wrote in his journal,

The other day, starting with December 21, and working in opposite directions in time, I placed opposite each other the corresponding dates in their distance from the solstice. Thus today is equivalent in the slant of the sun’s rays to November 2–and yet, what a different quality to the sunlight; now it is powerful, waxing and expanding, and in November it is fading, and waning. It cannot be just a state of mind. Read more

Feel the Chill with Charles Kingsley’s Ode To The Northeast Wind

snowy sprucesIt is rare to encounter verse that places winter storms in a positive context, isn’t it?

Around 1900, the international writer Lafcadio Hearn gave lectures on English literature and poetry at the University of Tokyo, and I can think of no better introduction to this author and poem than the one he gave. Read more

Industry and Indolence: Aesop’s Fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper

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black ants crawl amid dry leaves and twigs“How we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And there are few examples of how we spend our lives more appropriate to the season than Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. On the surface merely a harsh lesson in thrift and planning, on a deeper level it becomes a koan which opens up the questions of what it means to live and what it means to truly be alive. Read more

The Best Resource for February Garden Tips

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the 1914 painting Brook in Winter by Edwin Webster
Brook in Winter (1914)
Edwin Webster

Even if you improvise while cooking, you probably followed a lot of recipes before you reached that point. More important is that before you tried it, you learned how your ingredients work.

Same thing’s true for the garden. Read more

The Ancient Roman Rites that Gave Their Name to February: Explore the Forgotten Connection

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pine branches with snow on themThis month continues the series Longfellow called The Poet’s Calendar, written mostly in 1880. While writing about the days of February, he refers to something you might not have read: a six-book Latin poem on months and days by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) “published” in the year 8. This source tells more about the seasonal custom of purifying the earth and how pine branches were involved in the ancient, pre-Roman ritual that gave this month its name.

February

I am lustration, and the sea is mine!
I wash the sands and headlands with my tide;
My brow is crowned with branches of the pine; Read more

The Enchantress’s Garden From “The Snow Queen”: Permanent Paradise or Enchanted Distraction?

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a winter scene looking across a frosty heathHaving just sampled the field of memorable and inspired renditions, I simply couldn’t let January pass by without sharing another example from the Golden Age of children’s book illustration, populated by figures such as Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, George Cruikshank and John Tenniel, or the unforgettable Kay Nielsen . . . who happens to share the name of what main character?

You surely know the answer to that by now!

So what have we here? Read more