Nature & Empire

In 1835, Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) started working on his five series work titled, “The Course of Empire,” in which he outlined the history of man – from nomadic times to a civilized state which ultimately led to the complete desolation of both man and nature. He was commissioned to make a series of paintings by New York businessman Luman Reed – and he used the opportunity to elevate landscape art to the level of history paintings by telling the allegorical tale of the dawn of civilization to its downfall through the deeds of man.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36)

On this Earth Day – as we struggle with climate change and a weakened environment – this series by Cole reminds us of the havoc that man has inflicted upon this planet – and the devastating consequence that awaits us if enough is not done to change paths and take care of the planet that sustains us.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (1836)

It is clear from most of Thomas Cole’s work that the pristine beauty and grandeur of the American landscape was close to his heart – he saw in it the sublime hand of God. He and his family had felt firsthand the impact on nature of the industrial revolution in England before they immigrated for America – and perhaps that’s why the untouched mountains and valleys of the great American outdoors were so dear to him. He recorded much of this beauty on his works and left us a record of the way these serene hills, valleys, and flowing rivers looked before man left his imprint upon them.

Roses are red, Violets are…blue?

I really enjoyed writing about the origins of flower names in a previous blog, “A Rose by any Other Name“, and since there are so many flowers with such pretty names I thought I would do one more.

Violets – We’ve all heard the Valentine rhyme with roses and violets, but violets aren’t really blue – they are violet!! Interestingly, the color came after the flower in this case – the flower is named after the Latin viola or a little violin.  The valentine poem we are all so familiar was first found in Gammer Gurton’s Garland which was a 1784 collection of nursey rhymes:

The rose is red, the violet's blue
The honey's sweet, and so are you 
Ilya Mashkov, Still Life with Camellia (1913)

Camellia  – When Carl Linnaeus standardized plant names in 1753, he named these flowers after Father Georg Joseph Kamel (1161–1706), a Jesuit missionary and naturalist. Father Kamel was a missionary to the Philippines where he became a plant specialist of the Philippine islands. Camellias are native to Japan and China, where they are known to exist since 2737 BCE. The flower is called Tsubaki in Japanese and symbolizes the divine.

Peony – this beautiful flower symbolizing romance and prosperity is named after Paeon who in Greek mythology was the physician to the Greek Gods. Paeon was a student of Asclepius, the God of medicine and healing. Asclepius was jealous of Paeon and threatened to kill him. Zeus turned Paeon into a flower to save him from Asclepius – and that’s how this flower got its name. Peonies are the national flower of China and are known as the king of flowers in China.

Pete Mondrian, Red Amaryllis with Blue Background (1907)

Amaryllis  – this flowers is named after a shepherdess in Latin poet Virgil’s work called the Eclogues which are a collection of 10 unconnected pastoral poems that he composed between 42 and 37 BCE. Amaryllis was in love with Alteo, and to get his attention she pierced her heart daily with a golden arrow for a month. The blood that dropped from her heart was red like the flower which came to be known as Amaryllis. Perhaps also because of the red color, the Amaryllis plays a starring role at Christmas time.

Newton’s Tree

Much like the college students of the year 2020, Newton too was sent home from Cambridge University during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1666, and it was while he was home sitting under the apple tree in his garden that the apple fell to the ground – and the rest as they say is history.  It has been over 340 years since Newton had his epiphany, and almost 300 years since the death of Newton – and yet the tree lives on in his garden at the Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire England. It was planted at least 60 years before Newton was born – which makes it well over 400 years old.

A graft of the original tree was planted at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1954, and from this tree others have been grafted and planted at numerous universities and research institutes across the world. They can be found at found at MIT, Occidental College, Tokyo University, Clemson, University of Nebraska, and Stanford among others. Even research centers with hot and dry climate, like the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India build canopies and try to grow the tree.

Bearing fruit in Pune, India

The love for the tree is ironic – because Newton only went to Cambridge to study Physics because his mother thought he would not make a good farmer!!


“In the woods, is perpetual youth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hippocrates – the father of medicine – is thought to have said, “Nature itself is the best medicine.” In his 1836 essay, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel nothing can befall me in life, –no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair.”

And in the 1980s, the Japanese agreed with the truth found in these statements and their own zen philosophies and started the practice of shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing.

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832 – 1898) – Walk in the Woods 1869

The simple act of meandering in a wooded forest, hearing the sounds it makes, or even its stillness, soaking in the sunlight as it filters through the canopy of green leaves silhouetted against the blue sky above, smelling the earthy, woody smells of the trees, and feeling the mossiness of their trunks – all of these are essential to our being. These are nature’s timeless elements that keep us grounded; and refresh our minds, bodies, and souls when we connect with them mindfully.

Shinrin-yoku started when it became apparent that technology, modernizaion, and urban landscapes themselves were causing the stress and depression found in city dwellers. But I wonder if it was just going back to our roots – to something we always did – something that we simply lost along the way and have found again.

(Images courtesy Cincinnati Museum,, and Tate Gallery).

For the love of trees – Sunday Seven.

Have you noticed how beautiful and lush trees look at this time of year? I love going for a walk on the trail near my house and walking amongst the trees – a sense of calm washes over me when I am with the trees. I decided to do this week’s Sunday Seven about trees and what they mean to different people.

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. Nelson Henderson.

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. Khalil Gibran.

Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking. Wangari Maathai.

When you’re outnumbered by trees, your perspective shifts. Jessica Marie Baumgartner.

What a joy it is to see, trees dancing in the rain! Charmaine J. Forde.

Things that can’t move, learn to see. Louise Glick.

Believe me, for I know, you will find something far greater in the woods than in books. Stones and trees will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Be like a tree, let the dead leaves drop. Rumi.

(Image – Gustav Klimt, The Park, 1910 or earlier. MOMA)

Full Moon Names

Last week I heard the full moon referred to as the Beaver moon.  In the past, I have heard the term Strawberry Moon, and I started to wonder at the origin and meaning of these names. The moon, its beauty, its soothing, eternal presence in the dark night sky, has fascinated almost every culture from time immemorial. But it has also served a purpose as the timekeeper of the world. Before there was a Gregorian or a Julian calendar, the moon with its recurring 28 day cycle helped people keep track of time.  While different cultures have given different names to the moon, many of the full moon names we hear nowadays have come from Native Americans who kept track of the time using the phases of the moon. The tribes named the full moons to coincide with the activity or events that occurred at that time in North America, and these names were later adopted by Colonial Americans.

Wolf Moon (image courtesy Old Farmer’s Almanac)

The January full moon is called the Wolf Moon for the wolf that howled from hunger because of the shortage of food during this midwinter month.  The full moon of the cold snowy month of February was called Snow Moon.  As the winter subsided in March, and the tribes saw trails of worms on the newly thawed earth, they called the full moon at this time the Worm Moon. As the harsh winter ended, a pink wildflower bloomed n the prairies and meadows across the continent giving the April full moon its name, the Pink Moon. May brought warmth and flowers in abundance and its full moon was called the Flower Moon. The strawberry harvest season gave the June full moon its beautiful name – Strawberry Moon. 

Buck Moon (image Old Farmer’s Almanac)

In July the male deer starts to regrow his antlers, and this gave the July full moon its name, the Buck Moon.  By August, the lakes were full of sturgeons and gave the full moon their name, Sturgeon Moon. September was harvest time and corn was the most abundant crop harvested, hence the name Corn Moon.  In October, the tribes prepared for winter and hunted deer and fox by the light of the bright and low October moon which they called the Hunter’s Moon.  In November, the intrepid beavers built dams on the rivers to get ready for winter, and the Native Americans who saw this annual activity called the full moon the Beaver Moon. Another explanation for this name is that it was the last few days for the tribes to trap beavers for their fur that would tide them through the upcoming winter.    And finally the December full moon is called the Cold Moon in response to the cold weather that gripped the region in December.

Full Moon Names (image Old Farmer’s Almanac)

How absolutely amazing is this? And what an incredible connection between nature and man. It speaks of the strong connection that Native Americans had with their land, with the animals they shared this land with, and with all of the nature that surrounded them. When we say the names of the moon – they are simply names because we don’t need them to mark the passage of time.  But for Native Americans in years past, the Worm Moon must have brought so much excitement – the cold winter was ending, the earth was warming up, soon there would be long sunny days, the meadows would be full of wildflowers, and trees would finally start to bear fruit.  The Hunter’s Moon would have given them time to prepare and hunt for the cold months ahead.  It seems incredible to be so in tune and in touch with nature.  With progress and change we lose things, and this has to be one the saddest things to lose – that oneness with nature, that awareness of the earth, its animals, and its bounty.