On Friday, June 4, I’m hosting a talk by Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants at Observatory.
Observatory is the gallery/event space in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn that I co-founded a little over a year ago with 6 other artists and writers (including Dylan). We host lectures, screenings, readings and illustrated discussions on a broad range of topics, each member hosting events that appeal to their interests, though most of our events do have a common theme – the place where art and science meet.
Copper etching by Briony Morrow-Cribbs for the book Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart
Wicked Plants is definitely that. Besides an illustrated lecture from Amy, we will also have a slide show of botanical drawings from the book. After exchanging a few emails with the artist to organize the slideshow, I was shocked to suddenly realize that I knew her! Briony Morrow-Cribbs and I went to Bennington College together for a year or so. I haven’t seen her in many many years, but what a surprise to have found her completely by coincidence, and to see what incredible work she’s been doing since then.
If you’re in the Brooklyn area, consider making it out to Observatory to hear about deadly plants and some fun plant history. More info here.
When you think of silk producing insects, spiders are likely the first that come to mind – and no wonder since I think most humans have gotten a distressing face-full of spider web at some point in their lives. And spider webs, when not gracing your face, are a marvel. I spent about an hour watching a spider maintain his web last time I was in Maine – I would place a blade grass onto the web, and the spider, fully aware that this was not a tasty treat, ambled over to the offending detritus, and carefully detached the strands of silk it was touching from the rest of the web. Incredible.
The Ailanthus Silk Moth, from my handy "Insects: A Guide to Familiar American Insects," published in 1951.
Or perhaps upon hearing of silk, you think of silk moths. Their silk fibers of their cocoons are woven into a textile we commonly know as…silk! Reading about how silk fabric is made might make you think twice about it – the larva of the silk moth (at this stage known as the silkworm) are farmed to cocoon stage. As the little silkworm inside prepares to transform into the beautiful silk moth, the cocoon is either dipped into boiling water or pierced through with a pin, killing the larva so that the cocoon can be unraveled as one thread (the strand of silk from just one cocoon can be over a mile long)! Emerging moths usually damage the cocoon – making the process of unraveling much more difficult. The untimely death of these little caterpillars, whose lives up to this point have been aiming solely towards the miracle of metamorphoses, just for a stupid article of clothing, well, it makes me a little sad.
Even some ants, bees and wasps produce silk for various uses.
Honeybee larvae produce silk to reinforce the wax cells in which they pupate, bulldog ant larvae spin solitary cocoons for protection during pupation, bumblebee larvae spin cocoons within wax hives (the cocoons are reused to store pollen and honey), and weaver ants use their larvae as ‘tools’ to fasten fresh plant leaves together to form large communal nests. (source)
But there is another silk producer you may not have heard of – the best insect OF ALL TIME! The Embioptera, fondly known as the webspinner. The webspinner produces about 150 strands of silk from each leg. He lays on his back on a tree trunk, and scrubs his little hands (I know insects don’t have hands but watch the video below and you’ll see what I’m saying!) back and forth, emitting silk above him. Essentially he lives under a sheet of silk so strong, insects walking on top of it cannot smell the webspinner just below and so waterproof that he must poke a hole in his silk sheet to get a drink of water. David Attenborough tells it much better than I do of course:
If you haven’t read David Attenborough’s autobiography, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster, well, you’re in for a treat. His unending and purely genuine fascination is inspiring on its own, but his incredible ability to elicit those feelings in others is truly encouraging. Also – how cool is he?!
Young David Attenborough recording frog chorus in Sierra Leone in the 1950s
In the last post I alluded to a giant box of Lancaster ephemera. My grandfather and his family many generations back lived in Lancaster, PA, by way of Germany if I’m not mistaken. My great great Grandfather, Warren Virginius Smith, and his son, Warren Virginius Smith Jr. saved everything, and in turn, my grandfather, Robert Melvin Smith (I wonder why on earth they stopped there with the W.V. Smiths; what a fantastic name…my grandfather could have been Warren Virginius Jr. II) saved everything they saved. And now it falls to me to save these stacks of Victorian calling cards, valentines, exquisitely penned letters, war ration stamps, tintypes, penmanship books, and old family cabinet cards.
Victorian Calling Cards (white ink on black cards!)
War Ration Book No. 3
War Ration Stamps
Cabinet cards of my handsome relatives
I am now the proud owner of about 40 thick portraits of bygone family members from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. I love going through them and imagining what they were like. My favorite is the old lady near the middle of this picture…I think she is my great great (possibly another great) grandmother. You can see she wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense. The backs are pretty charming as well.
The backs of some of these cabinet cards are prettier than the pictures themselves
Tintype from Atlantic City - as my grandfather noted, my great great grandfather is the fellow on the right...but I want to know more about that dapper mustachioed friend of his.
Probably the most wonderful item of the bunch is my great grandfather’s old fountain pen. Isn’t she a beaut? I have already tried my hand with it, and wrote my mother a letter – my cursive actually ain’t too bad, but over the course of the letter my sentences start to sloping dangerously. I may need to look into acquiring some lined paper – or stop being so lazy and line it myself.
My great grandfather's fountain pen, with which I have great things planned (read: penpals!)
I’m using his old books (there are three of them, each one completely filled out – inspiring patience!) to relearn cursive.
I just got back from a much needed trip to Maine to visit my mom and sisters. The week was full of snail shell collecting in Reid State Park, working on the garden, watching Pawn Stars and Little House on the Prairie (tv can be magical when you don’t have it), coffee on the porch, and as always, copious junk/thrift/flea shopping. Usually I take the bus from Brooklyn (an agonizing 8 hour ride each way) so I can return home with as much loot as I can carry. This time, I opted for the more luxurious flight (which takes ONE HOUR) so I could only bring back the contents of a small suitcase. And most of that space was taken up by Dylan’s new sleeping bag from the LLBean outlet store in preparation for “2010: The Year of Camping.”
However, I did manage to drag back an antique cigarette box holder, which I found at the Fort Andross Flea Market in Brunswick. It was used in an old general store in Holden, Maine, for those slim, flat tin cigarette cases, out of which the shopkeep would sell customers one or two cigarettes at a time (when I first moved to New York you could still buy a cigarette at a time, they were called Loosies, which for the longest time I understood as Lucys; I found this name extremely quaint, but alas, turns out they were not named for a spunky flapper lady of my imagining.)
My new box came with some wonderfully rusty old cigarette cases. You should have seen how black the rag turned when I attempted to clean them. (I made sure not to clean so thoroughly as to remove the charming old-things-patina…Pawn Stars and Antiques Road Show have trained me well.)
I love my little piece of Maine general store history, but far more wonderful is the Lancaster, PA ephemera I brought back. My beloved grandfather recently passed away, and his wife dropped off a huge box filled with old photographs and papers at my mom’s house. As the resident antiquey things connoisseur, I was invited by my mom to “take whatever you want.” Dangerous words. I’ll save my wonderful ancestral loot for another post.