Homes Made For the Holidays

The Baldizzi family kitchen ~ Photo by Keiko Niwa

Josephine Baldizzi arrived in this country as a young girl from Sicily. Her family lived on New York’s Lower East Side from 1928 to 1935, their home a small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

During the Depression, there was no money for Christmas gifts or decorations, so her father, Adolfo, scavaged through their neighborhood for discarded pine branches from other peoples’ trees. Putting his carpentry skills to work, he drilled holes into a piece of plain board and then, using the branches he’d collected, created a Christmas tree for his family. Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Blackbirds

Meet Isoceles, the grackle with the triangular perch

 

Strictly speaking, this handsome bird is a grackle rather than a blackbird: specifically, a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major). Often seen along the Gulf coast, it can be distinguished from the common grackle by its dark eyes; common grackles’ eyes tend to be a bright yellowish-gold.

Ogden Nash once wrote a humorous if not entirely complimentary little ditty for the grackle, but the stately demeanor of this bird seemed to demand something more. Wallace Stevens was able to describe “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and these four ways especially appeal to me:

 

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.   
III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.   

Comments always are welcome.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Way Of Seeing

My Shanty, Lake George, 1922

Had I discovered this small, straightforward painting hanging in a gallery, I doubt that I would have recognized it as the work of Georgia O’Keeffe: an artist I generally associate with big flowers, big buildings, and big landscapes.

Today, I know that O’Keeffe created My Shanty almost on a whim — as a bit of sly commentary, or even as an artist’s practical joke — but that knowledge doesn’t make her story of its genesis any less delightful.

The clean clear colors [of a Lake George shanty] were in my head. But one day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the shanty, I thought, ‘I can paint one of those dismal-colored paintings like the men. I think just for fun I will try — all low-toned and dreary with the tree beside the door.’
In my next show, ‘The Shanty’ went up. The men seemed to approve of it. They seemed to think that maybe I was beginning to paint. That was my only low-toned, dismal-colored painting.

As her trust in her intuitions developed and her methods matured, her observations grew more trenchant. Continue reading

Those Almost-Photographic Plates

In a world still characterized by four-digit telephone numbers, 78 rpm records, and vacuum tubes that had to be carried to the hardware store for testing when the radio or television wouldn’t work, my first camera fit right in.

A Christmas gift, it was a simple Kodak Brownie — perhaps the Brownie Holiday, but more probably the slightly newer Model 127. Of course it required film, carefully loaded into the camera one precious roll at a time. There were knobs to turn, holes to match with tiny, mechanical teeth, and a certain amount of ruined film that went along with the learning process, since childish excitement often meant forgetting the first rule listed in the Brownie 127 instruction manual: “Take the camera into the shade.”  Continue reading

A Halloween Spiderpalooza

Who could be afraid of this? Juvenile peacock spider (Maratus albus)
(all photos courtesy of Jürgen Otto)

Jürgen Otto is passionate about spiders: not just any spiders, but the tiny Australian creatures known as peacock spiders. Famous for their brilliant colors and intricately patterned courtship dances, their genus, Maratus, includes sixty-seven species and subspecies.

The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874. In the past decade, Otto and his colleague David Hill have discovered more than half of the currently documented species. One species has been found in China, but the others all live in Australia, primarily in the bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.

Peacock spiders are so small (the one in the photo above is sitting on a pencil) that most people don’t notice them, even in the heart of their territories. Recalling his own first encounter with a peacock spider, Otto says:

I did not know anything about them until I stumbled over one during a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney] purely by accident. It attracted my attention in the way it jumped — it seemed more nimble than other spiders. The specimen I saw then was one of Maratus volans, and I had no idea at the time what it was or that there were other similar species.
Maratus volans in his full glory, with abdominal flaps extended
A true thumbnail portrait of Maratus volans ~ notice the folded abdominal flaps

For many years, people believed that peacocks (a variety of jumping spider) used the flaps on the sides of their abdomens to glide through the air, but no one actually had seen them use the flaps for any purpose. Eventually, Otto’s research unearthed a suggestion or two that Maratus volans used its flaps in courtship, and his work with the spiders confirmed it.

When a male peacock spider encounters a female, he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags. If she seems interested,  he raises the flaps at his sides and displays his brilliantly colored abdomen while dancing back and forth.

If he performs well and the female finds him acceptable, they will mate; occasionally, the female will do her own little dance of acceptance. But color patterns and dance moves are species-specific, meaning that males with atypical dances, or color patterns that resemble those of a different species, can come to a sorry end.

There’s little sentimentality among female peacock spiders. If she doesn’t approve of the dance, or mistakes his abdominal pattern for that of an unfamiliar species, she’ll often have the male for lunch — as the main course.

 
The mating dance of a Maratus personatus (who apparently was refused, but lived to tell the tale)

Watching one of Otto’s  videos, it’s easy to assume the spiders are dancing in the wild. But most videos are shot in his home, where he maintains a “spider room” for studying and documenting the various species in every stage of development.

At one point, he kept a pile of leaves on the dining room table for photo shoots, until his wife objected, and other accomodations had to be made. As for the filming itself, Otto’s techniques are relatively simple:

 When I started to film them, I had no idea about how to go about it. I simply thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I just kept filming them and added scene after scene to my collection. I had no prior experience in editing video footage.
The equipment that professional documentary makers use is very different from mine, with much larger cameras, big steady tripods etc., and for a while I thought that getting such equipment would be something to strive for.
However, I now realize that the small, simple, and cheap setup I used was almost ideal for the job as it allowed me to follow the spiders on the ground and use natural lighting. Once you find a place where they occur, you simply have to search for specimens and watch them or, better, find a pair that is already engaged in some courtship.

Otto’s affection for his subjects is obvious, as is his hope that people introduced to them will develop the same affection. He often mentions that the spiders are considered cute, even by self-declared arachnophobes, and that he “loves the way they interact with their environment: how they exhibit fear, excitement, and curiosity.” Seen through his eyes, the spiders are less fearful than fascinating: the very opposite of the Halloween horror they’re often portrayed to be.

What’s also clear is that he enjoys their dancing, and sometimes is amused by it. I suspect only someone with a great deal of affection for these creatures and an ability to be amused by them would have come up with this video. It’s a musical tribute with a sly title. For the male peacock spider, staying alive certainly does depend on his ability to dance his tiny little heart out.

Comments always are welcome.
For more videos, see Jürgen Otto’s YouTube channel.  For photos, try his Flickr page.
For a hilarious video of a peacock spider dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” click here.
For some serious science, PECKHAMIA, the major publication of the Peckham Society, is a good source. Founded in 1977 as an informal alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in jumping spider research, the society was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham, early pioneers in their study.

Me, My Selfie, and I

selfieOn the banks of Fox Creek
(click any photo to enlarge)

After a combination of circumstances and a good bit of cyber-frustration led me to purchase an iPad early in the course of my recent travels, a friend pointed out what she clearly assumed to be a side benefit. “Just think!” she chirped. “Now you can send us selfies while you travel!”

Having known me for years, she should have known — but clearly didn’t — that it hasn’t been the lack of a camera phone or its obnoxious accessories that’s excluded me from the ranks of selfie enthusiasts. I simply lack the inclination. The thought of photographing myself when there’s so much else of interest in the world to record seems faintly ridiculous. Continue reading