Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, October 05, 2007

Herbert Muschamp’s Palaces

Still wandering with exhilaration through the prose of a controversial critic.

imageHerbert Muschamp and Linda Roy discussed architecture aboard the ‘Henry Hudson’ ferry

Photo: Dandubno

Architecture has always seemed such a dry, brittle discipline to us. We envision all those people in crisp white shirts edging forward in their tubular chairs, heads cocked slightly back to peer through little rectangular eyeglasses. They are talking about “space” so fast, at such length, so tediously, you feel for your pulse, stand and run from the room. And fashion? With the death camp eye shadow and trickles of white applause, it, too, seems a mean sport.

It took writer Herbert Muschamp to disabuse us of these prejudices. His “reviews” of architecture in the New York Times were architectural themselves. They were essays, really, with windows, balustrades, dark libraries, and terraces surrounded by fragrant trees. His writings were little palaces of thought, and unlike real-life palaces, they were inviting, amusing. His way of writing about couture and buildings suggested (gently) that our discomfort had been laziness, miserliness—an inferiority complex in the face of beauty, strength, and wealth.

Apparently, Muschamp was cast out of favor at the paper sometime around 2004. We saw his essays less and less. Some said he was fraternizing too often and too fondly with the designers he discussed in the paper. Other critic-critics seem to have found his prose maddening for the very reasons we loved it – the spirals of reasoning and the sudden personalizations – like coming unexpectedly upon a mirror at the end of a long hallway at night.


Jacqueline Kennedy visiting Lake Pichola in Udaipur, India

(wearing apricot Oleg Cassini silk ziberline coat and dress)

Photo: via City Review

One especially memorable piece was his review of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” an exhibition combining news photography and costume. We remember at first being startled that the architecture critic would write about fabric and hats—Jackie. “Photographed from the back as a campaign limousine heads up Fifth Avenue, she waves her gloved hand, unfurling the broad sleeve of her coat like the wing of some gorgeous descendant of a prehistoric bird of prey.”

And so we continued…

“There was a Darwinian aspect to the 1960 election: the survival of the most attractive. Since Mrs. Kennedy outranked her husband on that evolutionary scale, her contribution to the Democratic victory should not be minimized. We were now well into the cold war. And we had learned that this war would be fought not with weapons but with images. The missile gap was more a matter of perceptions than facts. Nuclear deterrence was propaganda. If a Soviet leader was crass enough to bang his shoe on the table at the United Nations, what other savagery might he be capable of?...”

Muschamp’s latest palace had come into view.

With such freshness he was able to evoke particular moments in history and distill them into extracts – blended for cultural revelation and dashing, like fine perfume.

Herbert Muschamp died this week, age 59, of lung cancer. We hope that you will have access to the announcement in the New York Times, though we found the obituary drab, almost comically so (What a good time he might have had with that assignment!). But the Times links to many, many of his wonderful essays. The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle is another of our favorites.  We’ve never read most of these—a lot to look forward to.


Jacqueline Kennedy and President Mohammad Ayub Khan

Lahore, Pakistan, March 21, 1962

(wearing blue silk-and-wool Alaskine coat by Oleg Cassini)

Photo: John F. Kennedy Library via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The aim to disclose culture through the experience of flowers may grow out of intellectual cowardice, humility or hubris. It may be just a personal form of restlessness. Does it matter? Maybe, if that aim creates anything worthwhile.

We’re exhilarated by how Muschamp extended criticism in our own time, of our own time. These are welcoming palaces, and we’ll revisit them. His essay on the Jackie Kennedy White House Years ends this way, reflecting on the final image of the Met show:

“A black-and-white photograph, greatly enlarged, depicts the president and Mrs. Kennedy sitting in the back of a limousine. The two are smiling at each other. It freezes a classic public-private moment: a scene of intimacy between two people at the center of a nation that had yet to discover that everyone wants to be a star.

“The scene is not Dallas, the year not 1963, though I think we’re meant to be jolted by the possibility that these two stunning creatures are headed for an appointment in Samara. We’re relieved to discover that the picture was taken the year before, but the discovery precipitates an even worse letdown because the picture was made in an America that had yet to be blown apart, first by one assassin, then by an army of them, until we had exhausted faith in our destiny and the entire world’s supply of good will that the Kennedys had helped to inspire.

imageHerbert Muschamp

Photo: Robert Maxwell, for The New York Times

“Wallowing in our poison now seems to be the national pastime. Art may not be the highest form of redemption from toxicity, but it’s a good one. In the show’s last gallery we see fashion transformed into something more enduring: the preservation of architectural landmarks, a field that continued to hold Mrs. Kennedy’s interest beyond the White House years. But throughout the show we see glimpses of her contributions to the arts: gala performances at the White House, speeches she gave on visits overseas.

“It was possible, back in the early 1960’s, to discount this work as the purely ornamental pastime of a young first lady. It seemed of a piece with seating a dinner, arranging flowers, redecorating the premises. It is not possible to make that mistake today, when culture has assumed such a major role politically and economically in the conduct of world affairs. It does not seem a small thing now to have made art a matter of national policy. In an age still racked by fear—missile shield, anyone?—it is vivifying to be reminded that the desire for beauty can survive the rage to destroy.”

Posted by Julie on 10/05 at 03:35 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPoliticsPermalink

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Plants & Child’s Play: Conkers Season!

In the United Kingdom, fall brings down the horse chestnuts and brings out the conkers competitors. Many thanks to James Wandersee and Renee Clary for coaching us in this fine, knuckle-busting form of human-plant entertainment.


Common horse-chestnut fruits with seeds inside

Photo: Wiki

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

Even today, not all children’s games require expensive video gaming systems, software, vivid color displays, and ample electrical outlets. Nor do all require entry fees, prior medical examinations, proper shoes, safety gear, game-specific equipment, purpose-built facilities, and adults who serve as referees.

Given that half the world — about three billion people — lives on less than $2 a day, it’s comforting to know that, even today, not all child’s play requires an outlay of money. Conkers is such a game, and now is the brisk and hearty time of the year to play it.

imageUK Children playing conkers on the school playground

Photo: Playwell

Thanks to a rather ubiquitous plant introduced to the British Isles from the Balkans in the 1500s, this popular autumnal playground game, first played in 1848, remains accessible and free to all children. It’s an egalitarian game, and we also like that playing it seasonally incites children to identify and become familiar with a particular plant, observing its reproductive cycle and paying attention to the genetic variation in its fruits.  We think this is especially important because botanical education research has shown that young children typically do not even consider trees to be plants—assigning them instead to a separate and distinct category of life forms!

Conkers’ pendulum-like “jousting contests” require just two players—not big teams. These competitions take place outdoors—where these living plants grow and the air is fresh. Conker season spans the months of September and October in the UK.

All that any British child requires to participate is access to a Common Horse-Chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum, and its “nuts.” Botanically, conkers are not true nuts, but seeds encased within a capsule that eventually splits open. Finding one’s “game weapon” is usually not a major obstacle because these majestic trees (reaching a height of up to 115 feet when mature) have been planted along streets and roadsides, as well as in parks and near public buildings. UK foresters report that are nearly 500,000 such trees are currently growing in Britain. 

imageCommon horse-chestnut tree

(Aesculus hippocastanum)

Photo: Rogue Turtle

Once the Horse-Chestnut tree displays its white or pink “Roman candle-like” flowers in late April to early May, it is pollinated by insects. After that, it sets fruit and produces the 1- to 1.5-inch diameter globe-shaped “nuts” resembling beautifully polished wood, each encased in a green, spiny husk that splits open when it ripens. It’s this “nut” that is the focus of the game of conkers.

To compete at conkers, would-be players must (a) harvest several sturdy-looking horse-chestnuts by searching the ground beneath such a tree or dislodging some from the tree branches; (b) select the potentially most durable conker (e.g., uniform color, symmetrical, crack-free); (c) drill or poke a hole through the “nut’s” center, and (d) thread a knotted ~12-inch-long piece of string (or shoelace) through the “nut.” The bottom knot prevents the conker from escaping the string. At least 8” of string or shoelace must be present between ones’ knuckle and one’s “nut”—this prevents “short-stringing” and maintains a basic level of difficulty. (It is also customary to exclaim, “Oddly, oddly onker, my first conker!” to insure good luck upon discovery of one’s first conker of the season.)

Children may attempt various hardening treatments in pursuit of fielding the hardest conker possible for play. Traditional pre-drilling approaches include (a) curing the “nut” by carrying it around in one’s pants pocket for a month, (b) boiling it in vinegar,  (c) baking it in a low temperature kitchen oven, or (d) brushing it with numerous coats of varnish. In the game’s standard home density test, the hardest fighting conkers will sink to the bottom of a pail of water, while the worst ones will float.

Combatants stand and face each other, separated by about 1 yard’s distance. The child playing the role of “receiver” dangles his/her “nut” motionless, by grasping the far end of the string. The “striker” swings his/her conker overhand in an attempt to hit and crack-open the receiver’s “nut.” There are many other arcane rules and traditions involved. Players take turns playing the two roles until one player’s conker is victorious.  Bruised knuckles are a frequent game injury!

imageGiant conker replica on display

at the international games in Ashton, Northamptonshire, 2006

Photo: World Conker Championships

Conkers are assigned battle values that depend upon the number of victories they have had and the number of victories that the conkers they vanquished had. By the end of the season, it is possible for someone to boast, for example, an undefeated “seventy-oner” conker, and decide to retire it from further competition—perhaps displaying it prominently in one’s room at home.

Conkers is a game played in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—not only by children, but by men and women as well. There are pockets of play in other countries as well. For example, the French Conkers Federation was formed 15 years ago and it declares a champion. However, the World Conkers Championships are always held in the town of Ashton, Northamptonshire, England on the second Sunday in October.

Before the annual games, about 2,000 conkers of the required 1.25-inch width are collected, drilled, and strung for the competitors’ use by Ashton Conker Club officials. This prevents any individual attempts to harden one’s playing conker. In 2006, nearly 500 contestants from 19 different countries took part in the 42nd annual event, cheered on by 4,700 spectators as over 1,000 conkers were smashed to smithereens. There are men’s, women’s, team, and junior categories of competition.


A junior conkers victor receives his gold cup

Photo: World Conkers Championships

Will you be present at Ashton on October 14th, 2007, from 10:30 a.m. till 3 p.m.?  We hope so…at least in spirit! After all, it is, unwittingly, the world’s biggest celebration of the fecundity of the Horse-Chestnut tree. Plus, it is good, old-fashioned outdoor fun.

To become interested in plants and open to learning more about them, we think children need more childhood experiences outdoors with plants. These can and should include sociocultural experiences—much like this one—as well as horticultural and botanical ones. There is even a song for the children to sing—in homage to the venerable Aesculus hippocastanum tree. If you wish to hear a children’s choir sing about the joys of conkers, use this link furnished by OOTAM, Britain’s leading independent publisher of music for preschool and elementary education. 

Posted by Julie on 10/02 at 01:33 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink
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